Category Archives: teaching

When is a teacher a salesperson?

self-help graphic
From the Ten Commandments for the ethical salesperson

 

Teaching is selling

I was chatting to a headteacher at an event I had organised recently and I can’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but he said to me: “So basically you are a saleswoman”. I backtracked and said, “Well, in a way I am, but not that kind of saleswoman, not the slimy car salesman type. I see myself as just spreading the gospel of a good thing”.

Salesperson isn’t usually used as a compliment. I felt slightly shamed by what he had insinuated but our conversation took an unexpected turn for the better. He nudged me jovially, leaned in, and confessed, “before I got myself into all this” he said, gesticulating to the room heaving with long-serving, high achieving headteachers from across the country, “I was what you might call a travelling salesman – and I loved it”.

To pare down the conversation and cut to the point, we found ourselves discussing with great interest and agreement that teaching is basically selling. Here are some thoughts on the basics of really sound sales skills based on my decade as an English teacher and a decade in consultative sales in the education sector, in my roles as Director of Business Development at The Key for School Leaders, as a consultant helping two small education businesses grow and develop, and as Head of Membership at Challenge Partners.

Believe in your product

One of the key ingredients for failure in any profession is being half-hearted or lacking in belief in yourself and in what you are doing. The best teachers are really convinced that what they have to offer is really worth knowing. Those that have great passion and enthusiasm for what they teach, and genuinely want others to share in their joy, are the ones that usually at least get the attention, respect, and often loyal commitment of their students.

Likewise, I only became interested in business development out of necessity. I started at The Key as Research Team Leader, working with a team of researchers tasked with swiftly, accurately and succinctly answering questions from school leaders on anything that concerned their school. The service was a hit, schools were feeding back that this was a game changer, freeing up their time, reducing their anxiety and ensuring that they were doing what they needed to be doing. And then the financial crash happened and the DfE decided they couldn’t roll out nationally as planned. We had two choices: fold or find a way.

My absolute conviction that what we were doing could change the way school leaders worked led me to take on the role of business development and start to spread the gospel. My enthusiasm was boundless. We went from a few hundred schools that received the service for free to 60,000 school leaders with paid membership across the country over the course of the next 5 years.

Know your market and be an expert

Belief isn’t enough of course. You have to know who you are dealing with. You have to be an expert in your subject. You have to keep refreshing your knowledge. And you have to find a way to make sure that you can communicate to your market, based on your intimate knowledge of what their needs are, where their heads are at, and how you can reach them.

I care passionately about education. I steep myself in reading, thinking, listening, connecting, and getting involved in the sector as a school governor, through events and TeachMeets and the like. I can be passionate and well-informed about a number of key issues. I am seen as someone who understands and empathises with the frontline sector folk.

A teacher who is clued up about how their subject connects with their students’ worlds and can articulate that, is onto a winner. And I’m not talking about convincing students that they really will need to use Pythagoras’ Theorum in their daily lives one day, especially if they ever have to move a sofa up a narrow staircase.  Being able to play back your peripheral knowledge to your students and being able to pitch at the right level, is essential for teachers.

In my roles to date, being clear about what schools will prioritise based on ever-changing Ofsted criteria, funding streams, times of year, demographics, local politics, or any number of factors is paramount. Working that into my discussions with my clients can help them trust me and know that I understand where they are coming from.

 Know your client group and listen carefully

Basic knowledge about your students’ lives, the things that might be pulling them this way or that, being savvy about forces such as poverty, pressures on gender expectations and your own unconscious bias can be a massive advantage when thinking about your target audience.

As teachers and as salespeople, we have a natural tendency to want to launch in with our message of enthusiastic good news. Worse still, salespeople and teachers alike often find themselves in the oppressive world of targets, box ticking and trying to get to the end point from the minute they start their day. Lest these things start to dictate unsavoury behaviours, asking questions and listening carefully is time worth taking. Greeting each child as they enter the classroom is a great way to show you are human, but actually listening to them when you ask how they are, is even better. Making connections, following up, replaying and reaching out is hard to find time for, but can actually get you further along towards your end goal than you would imagine.


Know your competitors and treat them with respect

Something I really believe in is knowing your competitors inside out. I also believe that you shouldn’t politely avoid them but should rather make efforts to connect, be in the same space and interact comfortably. Moreover, I believe that you can never get anywhere or earn the respect of others through dissing your opposition or competition.

If you know your competitors, what they do well, where you are similar and where you differ, it is possible to articulate this in a respectful and engaging way.

Kids always try it on and will compare you with other teachers. How many times have you heard them say words to the effect of “Miss never gives us homework like you do! They are much nicer than you”? Or perhaps they complain about another teacher saying you are much nicer because of x, y or z reason. What do you say in response? Can you say something that shows that you actually know what your colleague is trying achieve and what is important to them rather than skirting around the issues or god forbid agreeing that they are a moron compared with you?

Or what about those students that are more interested in other things rather than in what you think is important? How can you be inquisitive, give respect to things that matter to your students rather than defaulting to the generation-gap trap of poo-pooing their passions?

When I worked at The Key, we didn’t really have any genuine competitors until one set themselves up to aggressively mimic what we did and deliberately target our members by offering to undercut us by 50%. Legend goes that their CEO was so determined to bring us down that he used to spit on the floor every time he had to mention our name. I made it my business to always go over and say a friendly hello to their sales team at their conference stands and congratulate them on their latest small landgrab. If asked about them, it was easy for me to set out the differences around quality, methodology, capacity and so on without ever saying a disrespectful word about them.

Recently as part of my work with Challenge Partners, I was invited to a seminar of organisations that offer peer review. Instead of the usual circus of pitches behind closed doors, each organisation was asked to speak about their model in a roomful of heads and in front of their perceived ‘competitors’ for business. What was delightful was the chance to hear more about these different models and to see the virtues and differences between them. Everyone was so passionate about their belief in peer review as a way to create meaningful and impactful collaboration, it was fascinating!

Solve problems, remove barriers

Consultative sales is really all about this. Putting together the points I made earlier, the ‘sales pitch’ really isn’t one at all. It is a discussion, which starts with you listening, and genuinely trying to see if what you have to offer will work for the other person. You can only know this by listening, knowing the market, understanding needs and so on. What are the simple things you can do to remove barriers? Can you move on the price, or perhaps add value without shifting on price? Are there economies of scale or a trial before there’s a commitment in full?

Students also need this level of barrier removal. You can’t know what these barriers are without listening, understanding, thinking creatively.


Have clear expectations for timelines and next steps

Some of the best teachers fall down on not being clear on what they want, when they want it by, in what format, how often, and for what purpose. It doesn’t take much to set these out and clarity can make for much better engagement and achievement in the long run. It’s not enough to just say it once either. It needs to be communicated in several ways at different intervals.

Same goes for sales. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of a prospective new member of your organisation without having properly set out the timelines and next steps of your discussion or negotiation.  If you get this wrong, excitement can lead swiftly to disappointment on all sides.


Be trustworthy

This is a big one for me. Having been brought up by basically unreliable and unpredictable adults, I have a special wariness of people who are flaky, who over-promise and under-deliver. I especially can’t abide by professionals or personal acquaintances who say they were swamped and that’s why they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. It seems to be a big feature of the education sector that people will just not be there when they have asked to schedule a call with you, or are half an hour late when they have asked you to come and meet them. As well as setting out next steps clearly, I always make sure I am true to my word. If I say I can move on price, I will. If I say I will call you at 2pm on Tuesday, I will.
Children need to be able to trust adults. They need to know that you will do what you said you would do. They need to know that if you set them homework, you can be trusted to take it in and mark it. They need to know that you will behave in a way that earns their trust and they also need to know you will be trusting of them.


Be warm and friendly but keep clear boundaries and don’t be a walkover

When I started teaching, I was told that I should start like a closed fist and only unfurl gradually and on my own terms. “Don’t smile ‘til Christmas” is what is said in this country, I believe. We often mistake being warm and friendly with a lack of boundaries. It is possible, desirable, essential even, to be warm and friendly to the people that we want to trust us, respect us and learn from us.

The same goes with sales. Warmth that is genuine and being friendly even if your service is ultimately rejected as not appropriate, is really important. If you have followed the steps of true consultative sales as set out here, there will be no change in your warmth and ability to be friendly, whether what you are offering is taken up or not. On the other hand, people can take the mickey and ask for a level of flexibility that just isn’t realistic. Don’t be afraid to say no because you worry you might lose the sale. Just explain why in a friendly way. You might be surprised that you don’t lose the sale after all.

While being friendly, one has to keep those clear boundaries.


Love what you do and do what you love

I have always had one rule about work. I love what I do and do what I love. If I find things to be otherwise, it’s time to move on.  I am genuinely passionate about the organisations I have worked with and feel completely at home sharing my passion, engaging others in dialogue and seeing if they might benefit from them too. There will always be targets, ideals, peaks in workload and even days that are simply crappy. But it’s important to me to work with my colleagues to build the right culture so that these things don’t become central drivers.

As a teacher, you can find that your initial passion can become swallowed up by the demands of the job. Where you can, join together with colleagues in your school to make sure the culture is one you believe in and that makes you feel happy and alive at least most of the time. Make sure that you aspire to being surrounded by staff and students that love what they do and do what they love.

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

Treading the line between compliance and creativity

alma

Last week I went to a screening of ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, the Sundance nominated film about what education could be. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. The film itself was interesting although sitting next to my anthropologist/social work lecturer/documentary film maker/husband, was a little distracting as he texted me his critique of the film and how it was made.

I was also doing a pretty good job of distracting myself with the plethora of emotional reactions I seemed to be going through watching the film. You can’t do anything much in life without recognising who you are and how this affects your experience. I am a mother of a 14 year old and an 11 year old, was educated in the 1970s and 1980s in London at a hippy primary school and then a girls grammar school that took me on despite my failing the entrance exam. I did an anthropology degree, have a PGCE that specialised in alternative education and a Masters degree in Education. I taught English for over ten years in Jerusalem in the 1990s and early 2000s in democratic and alternative schools. I helped set up, and worked at, The Key for 8 years, supporting school leaders and governors to run their schools. Now I work for the school-led charity, Challenge Partners. I am a long-suffering school governor too. It would be safe to say I live and breathe education. So clearly, my viewing experience was coloured by my life so far and as I watched, I also listened to my own thoughts and reactions.

As a teacher

I taught in three schools that were really like the one in the film and as part of my teacher training, visited several others across Israel. It made me nostalgic and excited to see it again on screen in Hi Tech High, and to remember that wonderful time. We had complete freedom to decide what we taught and how. The curriculum was designed by each teacher, there was no monitoring of their classroom, homework or lesson plans. We wrote our own tests and decided when, what and how frequently to test the children. There were national GCSE equivalent tests at the end of year 12. The kids usually did well. It was the most incredible experience. It made me a passionate, hard working, dedicated, curious and committed teacher. I wanted each child to thrive and shine, I loved my subject and my classes were vibrant, varied and the children were, on the whole, enthusiastic learners. It wasn’t without its challenges and difficulties but we worked these through, the general tone was one of exploration, dialogue, understanding and practical solutions. The school was a happy and purposeful place.

On the other hand, I sometimes look back at my teaching experience as I do on my neglectful parents during my 1970s childhood entirely devoid of any health and safety awareness. The amount of times we could have died as we lolled about in the back of my mum’s Morris Traveller without seatbelts, or ran about the streets playing unattended sometimes laughing off the passing paedophile’s pathetic attempts to lure us into his car, or hopping over the tube rails for a dare. If I hadn’t been streetwise and vigilant, it could have been tragic indeed. And if I hadn’t been the massively enthusiastic and reflective practitioner I was, I could have just done not very much with my students and coasted my way through the years. I found that some of the children at the schools where I taught really suffered from the amount of freedom they had. It was their parents who had wanted this for themselves as children, and were living vicariously through their children by giving them relief from the oppressive discipline they hated in their own childhood. With such permissive parents, lacking in clear boundaries, some children were really ill equipped to deal with freedom of this kind and it was exhausting trying to meet their needs.

As a mother

I felt remorse, guilt and anxiety – why don’t my children have this kind of education? Why have I been so passive about sending them along with the herd to normal schools? Have they missed out and been compromised by restrictive educational experience that has increasingly been narrowed by the obsessive managerialist measurement culture? Or have they been strengthened by having to eke out creative, autonomous, and alternative educational experiences despite being on the factory line of bog standard English education?

I felt defensiveness and derision – I didn’t have to decide whether to send my own children to the schools where I taught in the end, although I agonized over it, because we moved to England when the oldest reached reception age. There seemed no choice except to go to the local primary school and hope for the best. What is shown in the film is all very well but if this school happened in this country, it would be only a very certain kind of parent that sent their kid there. It would be swamped by anxious yummy mummies and would fall foul to the fate of many of the free schools of its ilk. It was my experience of my hippy local primary school in the 1970s where we learnt Beatles songs, carpet weaving and were left to self-directed learning from laminated cards in Learning Lab boxes that led to my failing the 11+ and spending my entire secondary education gasping to barely keep up.

As a working person

Throughout my career at management and director level, when I interview people for roles in my team, I sometimes find the more impressive the grades on their CVs are, the more lacking in creativity and unable to cope with autonomy they are. The Hi Tech High model of team work gives importance to going through a process and not just to the output, respect is given to exploration, for taking the time, and this really appeals to me. We seem to be racing people through life, meting out the stages of development they need to reach from birth to graduation and ticking them off to satisfy our own need for measurement, league tables, evidence of productivity and the like. We have a generation of young people in their early careers that are restlessly running on underdeveloped tip toes before they have developed the stability needed when they hastily learned to walk.

My conclusion will always be the same. I am ever the relativist in my outlook. There’s room for everything and a one-size-fits-all approach never works. I would love there to be room for such freedom and depth of thought and experience for all children. I believe that some schools do manage to build in some pockets of exploration and autonomy while marching along to the exhausting demands of the system as a whole.

By way of example, while we were watching this film, my youngest was away for the week at a wonderful life-changing experience through her school. Fifteen Yr 7 to Yr 9 children were sent away to a writers’ retreat of incredible calibre in Shropshire. It’s especially amazing that she was chosen as the school has recognised that she is an articulate and enthusiastic writer and that her SATS scores and dyslexia shouldn’t be allowed to be an impediment to this. “I wish my school was always like that”, she repeated over and over for the coming weeks. What she loved was the freedom and structure that interplayed so well. The autonomy mixed with clear guidance from professional writers. They cooked their own meals and went for country walks. They were able to steep themselves in a project day after day, after day, were encouraged to focus on depth, to make mistakes, and to be treated as writers by writers. It’s not the first experience of this kind they have had at the school, and it won’t be the last. So instead of beating myself up for not banding together with fellow parents and creating a free school that provides the North London version of Hi Tech High for my children, I think I will continue to support my local comp that treads a confident line between compliance and creativity.

 

 

Collective punishment: it doesn’t work but still it happens

punishment-letter
As part of a group detention, students were asked to write a letter on why it is necessary to follow the teacher’s instruction. My child wrote this.

 

Collective punishment might feel good to you at the time, but it is always wrong

I am not sure I need to add more than is already clearly and respectfully explained in the letter above. Collective punishment is as much a punishment for those that behave themselves as it is for those that don’t. Only, it seems perverse to me that those that have done nothing to deserve it, are punished twice. They are taught that there is no reason to behave well and that if a teacher doesn’t recognise and even disrespects their efforts to follow the rules, these students eventually may say……pfff! What’s the point?

I have given group punishment. I have been that teacher. It was many years ago but when I think about it, I can still feel the ghost of sheer desperation and the feeling of vindictive hatred towards those that had wrecked my well-intended, well-planned lesson. Sooner or later I must have realised it was wrong. Or perhaps I just got better at managing behaviour in class and seeing who was misbehaving.

A couple of weeks ago, it happened in my Year 9 child’s school for the umpteenth time this term and she texted me to say she couldn’t face yet another group detention after school, having missed lunch just days before for one from a different teacher. I called the school livid but also determined to come with the suggestion that they help the offending teachers to understand why it is a stupid technique and to help them find other ways to get the students to behave. As it turned out, the way the school has responded is spot on. They will work with the teachers in question, have deployed more mentors for the class in question, will reissue the school behaviour policy, which disallows group punishment and will also meet with the well-behaved students in the class and discuss with them what they see going wrong so they can learn from their perspective too.

Collective punishment doesn’t make any sense

If you are ever tempted to deploy this as a technique, here is a short film about how ridiculous it is. And if that is not enough, here is a list of some of the reasons not to do it:

  • It makes you look weak and too lazy to get to the bottom of who is misbehaving
  • It probably isn’t allowed by the school behaviour policy so you are not only breaking  the rules yourself but also breaking the contract that each child and teacher have signed up to in the school
  • It demotivates well-behaved students and discourages them from behaving well and makes you feel horrible about yourself as the teacher
  • It doesn’t make sense – we don’t close entire roads because some people drink and drive or shut down libraries because some people damage the books
  • There are better ways

If you need other ways to punish those that misbehave, here are some people with a few ideas:

Learning Spy  deploys an approach which involves gradually releasing students until the right person can be identified and dealt with.
Larry Ferlazzo, in The Happy School, advocates a gentle approach that happens more discreetly than the public display of anger and disappointment in front of the whole class that often takes place.
Playworks advocates 6 ways teachers can build a collaborative contract with their students so that collective punishment such as withholding break-time doesn’t have to be an option.

When it comes to behaviour management, the one that needs to change is probably you

Behaviour management actually requires change of behaviour from you as the adult first and foremost. Pivotal Education is one organisation I know of that has built their entire, very successful, training business around this basic theory – and it works. See this simple but effective explanation of how adult behaviour is the biggest influencer of student behaviour. Most impactful, especially in such financially straitened times, is just considering the real costs of not sorting your own behaviour first.

pivotal
Source: Pivotal Education

An example from one of the masters

There is a Spanish teacher at the school who commands respect from all students and who we often hear about over the dinner table. This teacher seems to know a key fact about each student and uses it to draw out of them a level of engagement and concentration that is stunning. One boy can’t sit still and often loses concentration. He is a great artist. The teacher asks him to summarise the key points of the lesson in a series of drawings which can be distributed to the other students at the end of the lesson to complement their own notes. He is riveted and gets stuck in. His own understanding has increased and he is proving to be a great student where, in other classes, he is disruptive and disengaged.

One student always shouts out inane things that cross his mind, and sometimes he shouts answers to questions without permission and over the top of other students when they have been given permission to speak. His role is given to him at the start of the lesson. He is given a vocabulary list of phrases and words in Spanish like “how interesting” and “ridiculous” and he must make remarks appropriately using these words when class mates are speaking. It’s fun, it keeps others on their toes. They want to get things right because it’s hilarious making him interact with them. He is bristling with concentration, not wanting to miss an opportunity to shout out.

Finally, when the teacher is telling them a story or explaining and uses the word that means “but”, the class must catch him and call out “pero means but”! It’s hardly surprising that most of the class wants to do GCSE Spanish and he doesn’t ever encounter behaviour problems.

This might seem like an energy-intensive method to engage a class but it seems to work and I bet he will never give collective punishment in his life.

 

 

 

 

School counsellor guest blog: What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why

‘What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why’ was first published in in the September 2016 edition of BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) “Children and Young People” journal for counsellors and psychotherapists working with young people by Ben Gross MBACP(Accred) MSc PGCE BSc(Hons) 

Ben Gross is a school counsellor, working in an infant, a primary and a secondary school and in private practice.  He is also a teacher and an author of children’s stories. You can contact him at innerrainbow@hotmail.com 

bob

Picture courtesy of Stan Dupp

I believe that protecting clients’ privacy is fundamental to ensuring the ethical and effective delivery of counselling in schools.  In this article I explore the significance of privacy by describing what I do to protect the privacy of my clients and the rationale behind my approach.

I protect my clients’ privacy by taking care to not make it obvious to their peers and staff that they are clients.  Here are a few examples of how I do this:

I cover the windows to the counselling room, although I often have to leave a small gap so staff are able to look in “if it might be necessary”.

I put a “PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door.

I choose discreet locations for counselling rooms.

I do not want to let other children know who my clients are because I do not want to make them seem different from the others.  If I did not take these precautions I believe that many of the children, even of nursery age, would notice that certain children are having additional input and before long all the children would realise it.  Generally children don’t want to appear different because they want to fit in with their peers.

To avoid making it obvious to their peers that they are having counselling I avoid collecting clients from class.  I ask their Learning Support Assistant (LSA) to bring them if they are Key Stage 1 (KS1).  Others can usually come alone.  If for any reason they cannot come alone, they can be brought by their LSA.  If a client forgets to come I ask either the SENCO or Deputy Head to collect the child from class (in primary schools).  In secondary schools if a client forgets to come I write them a letter explaining that they have missed a session, reminding them of their appointment time.  In the past when I have collected clients from class I noticed that it can attract a lot of attention from the other pupils.

Other ways I avoid exposing clients are by refraining from:

  • sitting with clients in the dining hall
  • working with clients during lunch break in the playground
  • pinning “counselling clients” lists to the staffroom or counselling room noticeboard
  • allowing clients to put pictures on the walls of counselling rooms with their names on.

This objective of ‘not letting others know who do not “need to know”’ also applies to parents of clients (who are also clients).  For example, I do not collect carers and parents of clients from the school foyer when we have meetings, but instead arrange for them to come straight to the room where we are meeting, so it is less likely that other parents and staff will see they are meeting with me.  I work in the same way when I have meetings with staff.

I do not let people who do not need to know, know the identity of my clients because there is inevitably a stigma attached to being in therapy, which springs directly from the stigma around having social, emotional or mental health difficulties.  We project our own vulnerability and fear that we might be mentally unwell into those who have been given this label, and then reject them, and in so doing feel we are now fine in comparison; not like them, the “mentally ill” ones.  This process of projection can cause people to treat “therapy clients” differently at best and, at worst, avoid and bully them.  Many young clients have said to me that they don’t want their peers to know they are going to see a counsellor because it would embarrass them, or they are worried they might get teased or bullied about it.   This can deter them from accessing counselling or make them want to stop if they are having counselling.

I also protect my clients’ privacy in relation to the school staff.  In my experience, many clients would not be comfortable with staff knowing that they are having counselling.  Only those who need to know should know, namely: Learning Support and Behaviour Support staff who work with the student; the teachers of the client; The Senior Leadership Team (which includes Special Educational Needs Coordinators and Head of Inclusion) and Year Heads in secondary schools.   I have found that staff readily refrain from talking with me about clients in front of other staff (ie in the staff room or corridor) and understand the idea of respecting client privacy once I explain to them the importance of this approach.

In secondary schools I protect clients’ privacy by not automatically letting carers and parents know when a student is referred for counselling; instead I ask the client how they would like this managed.  By contrast, in primary schools I have always been required to get signed parental permission before beginning the work.  This difference in approach seems to apply in many schools.  Although some clients, regardless of age, do not want their parents to know they are having counselling, privacy for clients in relation to their parents seems to be determined by whether they are in primary or secondary school.  This may be because of a mistaken understanding of The Gillick Competency where the rule has been oversimplified to match school ages for ease of application; after all, some primary-aged children have the capacity to make reasonable decisions for themselves and some secondary-aged students do not.

I contain my work within the privacy of the counselling room to protect the privacy of the counselling relationship.  Hence I avoid doing anything which would make me become part of a client’s social world such as:

  • leading assemblies about counselling
  • observing classes
  • teaching classes
  • setting up counselling info stalls in the school foyer
  • appearing in photographs of staff on the noticeboard
  • working with clients outside of the classroom (e.g. in the dining hall or playground)

The reason I avoid these activities is because in counselling work, I provide safe containment for very sensitive personal feelings in the privacy of the counselling room.  I join my clients in their private, inner, emotional world and so I feel that I should not at the same time be part of their outer, social world.  It is for this reason that the counsellor assigned to a child should not be a friend or teacher of the client, or a friend of the client’s parents.  My view is that if I enter a client’s social world, this creates two different relationships and the boundaries of therapy become blurred.

It is hard to uphold these boundaries in schools. Sometimes staff or students open the door of the counselling room, ignoring the “Please do not disturb” sign.  I have experienced members of staff not wanting the windows of the counselling room to be covered.  In a school where I worked it took over a year to reinstall the latch on the counselling room door that had been removed so that it could not close.  If staff are able to tolerate their frustration about not knowing who the counselling clients are they will model appropriate behaviour for pupils who will learn to not be intrusive with peers who are having counselling.  When a student is having counselling some of their peers and staff will no doubt find out, one way or another, even by simply seeing the child walking to the counselling room.  But this does not imply that all their peers and staff might as well be told.  So I do my best to be as subtle about it as I possibly can.

The BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 (EF) supports my approach to client privacy.  The EF states that counsellors have a “commitment to clients” to “Show respect by …protecting client…privacy” (p1).  The EF sets out guidelines on “Good Practice” (p5) which includes “Respect” and states, “We will respect our clients’ privacy”.  Thus, according to the BACP, if we let others know unnecessarily that a client is in therapy we are not respecting their privacy and this is not good practice.

In schools, as already stated above, it is almost impossible to keep the fact that a child is having counselling completely private.  The EF states, “We will protect the confidentiality and privacy of clients by…informing clients about any reasonably foreseeable limitations of privacy or confidentiality in advance of our work together” (p7).  So we have a duty to explain to clients that others will find out they are having counselling, what the implications of this could be, and help them to make a decision for themselves about whether or not they are comfortable with this.

Of course some clients may be happy for others to be told.  The EF states, “We will work with our clients on the basis of their informed consent and agreement” (p7).  “Informed consent” is key here, and relates again to the idea of Gillick Competence; the ability to make an informed choice.  If a child does not have the knowledge and maturity to make an informed decision, we have a duty to protect them from the side effects they may inadvertently be exposing themselves to by agreeing to openness.  The idea of what is or is not private develops only gradually in children’s mind.  They need to be given the opportunity to develop their attitude to privacy.  If we don’t help them to make this decision themselves, but instead tactlessly reveal they are having counselling to others, we are doing them a disservice.  This could even be seen as abuse.  If I suggest to a client that it’s ok for all and sundry to know, they may agree and later regret it.  The EF states: “Careful consideration will be given to working with children and young people that…takes account of their capacity to give informed consent…and their best interests” (p8).  Clients have a right to choose for themselves whether they want the fact they are having counselling to be revealed freely to their peers and staff by those who know.  Some young clients will need support to make such a decision.

The guidelines for “Good Practice” in the EF state, in the section, “Building an Appropriate Relationship” (p8),  “We [counsellors and therapists] will establish and maintain appropriate professional and personal boundaries in our relationships with clients by ensuring that…any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client” (p8). This supports my previous suggestion that we should avoid taking on additional roles outside the counselling room.  Similarly, the Department for Education (DfE) report “Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future” states: “Counselling needs to take place in a safe, private and welcoming environment…If possible the counselling room should be in an area where it isn’t obvious the pupil is going there to attend counselling” (2016:p30).

I have encountered members of staff who believe that it does not matter if the counsellor is seen in public with a client because students don’t know who the counsellor is.  I think that is unlikely; after all, young people are curious and they will see the counsellor walking about and into and out of the counselling room and news spreads fast in schools.  Some staff deny the existence of stigma saying, “All the children want to go to therapy because it has such a positive image in our school.”  I think this is wishful thinking.  There is a vast body of research evidence that counselling is stigmatised in UK schools, and that children fear being stigmatised for attending counselling. “Much research reinforces the ubiquity of concerns about negative stigmatisation by peers as a barrier to young people accessing services” (Prior, 2011:p1).  Students, generally don’t want it to be known that they are attending counselling because of student attitudes towards mental health and well-being services (p1).

Interestingly I have seen situations where senior staff members are extremely attentive to the privacy of staff members who are attending counselling whilst at the same time adopt a very open policy towards children attending counselling.  They are quite aware that staff seeing a counsellor would not want other staff to know.  Perhaps this is because they believe that adults stigmatise but children don’t.  Children, in their view, might not be affected by stigma if counselling is dealt with very openly.  I don’t agree.  If a therapist stays with a student in the playground or dining hall (acting rather like a human dunce cap), this will advertise to the entire population of the school the fact that he/she is a client.  Once when I was visiting a school for an interview, a counsellor introduced me to her client as they went into the therapy room (which was just off a dining hall full of students).  The client looked extremely uncomfortable.  I do not think being open about counselling is a good way to try to reduce the stigma around therapy.  Better keep a private interaction private.

In summary, I believe that protecting privacy is an essential component of ethical and effective counselling practice.  If we do our best to protect the privacy of our young clients this will help them feel comfortable about accessing counselling support in schools and staying with it. I hope the ideas I have set out in this article will encourage practitioners to think carefully about their approach to protecting the privacy of young clients in schools.

Bibliography

BACP, (2016) Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions.  Leicestershire: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Cooper, M. (2009) Counselling in UK secondary schools: a comprehensive review of audit and evaluation data, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 9, 3, 137–50.

DfE, (2016) Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future, Departmental advice for school leaders and counsellors February, 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/497825/Counselling_in_schools.pdf

Freake, H., Barley, V. and Kent, G. (2007) Adolescents’ views of helping professionals: a review of the literature, Journal of Adolescence, 30, 639–53.

Prior, S. (2012) “Overcoming Stigma: how young people position themselves as counselling service users,” in Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 34 No. 5 2012, pp 697–713. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2011.01430.x/pdf

What I learned from my learning styles research project back in the day 

learning
Photo by Penny Rabiger

 

In 2000, I was in my 5th year as a teacher, working in a high school in Jerusalem. I was also working towards my Masters in Education through the University of Leeds, which weirdly happened to have a department above a Toyota showroom in the industrial quarter of the city.

As part of the course, we were encouraged to carry out action research, which I absolutely loved. It was the perfect way to marry academic enquiry and actual practice and it was a great way to challenge my own thinking around what works by taking an interest in evidence-informed practice. In vogue at the time was the now much-maligned “learning styles”. Working in such a diverse school, I found it fascinating how I would reach each and every student in my classes and set about reading everything I could about de Bono’s thinking hats, multiple intelligence, learning styles and more.

My learning styles action research project

For my final research project, I decided to undertake a two-term study with one of my groups of students, examining the effect of learning styles on the class. Having studied anthropology for my BA, I knew this shouldn’t be structured as some kind of scientific laboratory project and I wanted to make sure that my ‘subjects’ were fully involved so that they could give me valuable insights into their very subjective and personal experiences as we went along. I began by explaining to my students with great excitement what I had been reading, and what I planned to do with them over the course of the rest of the academic year. They were interested. Not least because they hadn’t had such an interaction with a teacher before and it made them curious.

I set about testing each student in the class to see what their dominant learning style was and I did a test to see what my most comfortable teaching style was. Once we had all completed the test, we discussed what we thought this meant for each of us. It was so interesting to see best friends in the class suddenly realising that they were not the “same” in their favoured style of taking in and processing information and that they may need to part ways during lessons if they were to make real progress. I then went about the massive task of writing my lesson plans and homework assignments so that each and every child’s favoured style was catered for. Amazingly, I then taught an entire class of 27 kids, with each using their preferred learning style as identified by the test.

I distinctly remember stepping back one afternoon to proudly behold my bold creation as some students were huddled in a small group, one was pacing the room, a couple had headphones on and were lying on mats on the floor and one lone student, who learned best through traditional face-the-front teacher-talk had me and her working one opposite the other.

 What actually happened was encouraging

Some amazing things started to happen. Firstly, I had been nervous about this experiment as the class was not easy to manage at the best of times. There was a small core of boys who misbehaved and some disengaged girls who were really struggling and therefore would switch off or egg the boys on to muck about and provide some distraction. But suddenly, there was a buzz of purposeful activity, the kids were arriving on time and getting stuck in, eager to receive their very personalised instructions for the lesson.

Secondly, they were all doing their homework and handing it in. Again, the personalised nature of the tasks and their knowledge of “what works for me” meant that they were now getting organised at home and trying out their newfound learning style preference without the intervention of the teacher. They were starting to take ownership.

Thirdly, their grades were improving. And the most stunning thing was that as their form tutor, I was being informed that their grades were improving across the board as was their engagement and behaviour in other classes.

I also learned that arranging every lesson in such a detailed, multi-faceted and involved way would kill me if I had to do it for every lesson and for every child. I taught English full time to Year 7 through to Year 10. This would not be realistic or sustainable.

What I learned about learning

We did a lot of talking about learning. Since these students were also my form tutor class, I had an hour a week to do what I wanted with them and we explored issues around learning a lot in discussions. I also carried out an in-depth interview with each child and recorded the interviews as part of my research evidence. I was delighted that each child seemed so much more engaged and motivated by learning and not just in my lessons, but across the board. I wanted to know why this was and asked the class what they thought were the reasons.

Reason 1: Enthusiasm
My own tangible excitement and enthusiasm for the project was contagious. The children were swept along. It also meant I had massive energy to prepare intricate and individualised lesson materials, which the children appreciated. My own conviction that this was going to work, probably made me completely focused on the elements of it that were working, and made me less anxious about any behaviour or other issues that might have escalated if I had paid any attention to them!

Reason 2: Trust
My attitude towards the students was completely trusting. I was ready to let them have some freedom and I trusted them to behave well and respect the experiment we were undertaking together. We had taken the time to talk through the evidence behind the reason for this experiment in the first place, I had trusted them to be equal partners in the process and they trusted me to be responsible and responsive to their needs. Compared with the sometimes very didactic and controlled learning experience these students were having in other classes, this was very enticing.

Reason 3: Metacognition
Recently, a study of 1,850 pupils in 30 primary schools, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), tested a programme intended to develop pupils’ ability to think about their learning, assess their progress and set and monitor goals. In my opinion, this is the single most valuable thing about learning styles. Learning styles themselves are about as useful as knowing your horoscope and then trying to arrange the world around it. But the simple act of engaging deeply and meaningfully with yourself as a learner is absolutely vital to learning. In my in-depth interviews with the students, each of them had gone through a deep realisation that they were the masters of their own destiny as far as learning was concerned. And not in the usual blamey “it’s up to you so pull yourself together” kind of way.

It is the learning and not necessarily the style that matters

My students had been given an opportunity to think about the reasons why they found certain things interesting and other things difficult and had been pushed to think of ways to make things work better for themselves. The language had changed from “the teacher doesn’t teach in an interesting way” or “the subject is boring” or “I am not good at x” to thinking about what they needed to learn and how they could ensure that this learning stuck, allowing them to engage, encouraging greater depth and progress. One student found taking notes while listening virtually impossible. She opted instead to record the lessons and then make notes later at home when she was under less pressure. It freed her up to engage in discussion, ask questions and be fully present in lessons, knowing she had the rest recorded to refer back to. Another student found the skill of asking for further explanation, after years of pretending he knew what was going on because he was too embarrassed to appear slow. We had created a culture whereby there was no standard one-size fits all learner and different needs were acceptable. A huge part of real learning is ownership. It is thinking about thinking and knowing about knowing. It is knowing about yourself as a learner and owning that.

Even though it might be hugely embarrassing now to admit that I ever dabbled in the dark arts of learning styles, I am really grateful that I did. In a roundabout way, I discovered what I only learned a decade later to be called metacognition. It also reinforced my own belief that teaching is about relationships and that includes not only the students’ relationship to their teacher and each other in the class, but their own relationship with themselves as learners.

From the inside, a hamster wheel looks like a career ladder: sabbatical year for teachers

solid-wheel

Image: http://www.catexpert.co.uk/

The College of Teaching is really going to start taking shape now and I am hoping that one of the things they will consider will be a sabbatical year as a way to prevent teacher burn-out.

I was a teacher for over ten years and I took a sabbatical year once in my penultimate year of teaching. The decade in which I taught was filled with probably familiar personal milestones for many teachers today. I was at the peak of juggling the demands of my professional life and the responsibilities and developments of my personal life. I completed my PGCE, taught for 4 years and then graduated from my M.ed, which had involved action research and lots of late nights reading voraciously and writing, on top of my full time teaching timetable. Shortly afterwards I was married and a year later had our first child. In Israel, where I taught, it is accepted practice that a mother returns to work after 12 weeks of statutory maternity pay. By the time I was mother of two a couple of years later, I was working full time, supplementing my salary with tutoring dyslexic students and exhausted from sleepless nights which are part and parcel of having small children.  Adding together the long working hours and the cycles of lesson preparation and marking that happens out of school – you may not know this, but the weekend in Israel consists of Saturday as school runs Sunday to Friday – I was wondering how long I can sustain this intense lifestyle. My sabbatical year was a godsend.

How does a sabbatical year work?

The sabbatical year is part of an expectation of ongoing professional development for teachers and has been going for a long time in Israel. In 1962, the government approved the sabbatical year for all teachers as a way to prevent burn out and retain teachers within the profession. It was also seen as a good idea to strengthen teachers’ professional identity by encouraging them to take time out to study, recharge and reconnect with their profession.

There is an expectation that teachers will undertake CPD activities outside of their school hours throughout the normal working year to help strengthen their subject knowledge and also to support them to hone and develop their teaching methodology. I would usually do at least one evening class a week at one of the teacher training centres. An Israeli teacher’s pay is determined by their level of education and so each course helps you accrue “points”. These points, the different leadership roles you might take on and the number of years you have taught then inform your salary rate. The direct result being, the more you learn as a professional and the better you are able to use that back at school, the more valuable you become. Cynics would say that teachers could just attend courses to bolster their salary, but you have to pass the courses you attend and they are usually very interactive. So unless you sit there with earplugs in chanting nah nah nah nah, you will learn and your learning should inform and improve your teaching.

The sabbatical year gives you time to step off the hamster wheel of teaching and invest some time into a dedicated time for study and reflection.

How is it funded?

During the sabbatical year, a teacher is paid about 66% of their salary which they draw from a fund to which they have contributed 4% of their salary over the previous 6 years. The education department match-funds this. Of course, if you don’t want to take the sabbatical year, you can just defer it to another year or you can even take the money and continue working so you can also view it as a savings scheme. You can read more about this here

How can a teacher afford a pay cut?

You are able to teach on a part-time basis while on sabbatical. I took the opportunity to support a struggling English department at another school one day a week and it was a great insight into how another school operated. It also gave me quite a lot of professional confidence that I could deploy some good practice in another school and contribute to the improvement of their department overall. This in turn boosted my professional network and reputation. And of course, it helped supplement my income a little.

What can you study on sabbatical year?

To qualify for the sabbatical funding, you need to study at least 15 hours a week. We were offered a vast choice of courses and were encouraged to find courses ourselves too. We were required to think of three broad categories of courses: something that builds on my current professional interest, something that broadens my horizons and something for my physical and mental well-being.  Gym membership or Tai Chi classes for example, were a completely acceptable way to spend a couple of hours a week.

What did I do?

Aside from working one day a week at another school and continuing to give some private lessons in the evening, I decided to take a two-term diploma in conflict resolution, knowing it could be helpful as a tool in the classroom or beyond. I also took a 12-week course in graphic design, imagining myself perhaps writing my own materials in a more professional way or even illustrating that children’s book I had often thought about. And as a wild card, I did a year’s qualification as a Doula (or birth coach). This was a golden opportunity to explore a possible career fall-back plan if teaching ever got too much. Oh, and I clocked in and out of the gym at least once a week, doing yoga, Pilates and other classes, finally taking care of that niggling lower back ache that had been bothering me for years.

I passed all of my courses and had the incredible experience of supporting 5 couples through their births as part of my Doula course. I was able to charge my clients the going rate and therefore recoup some of what I spent on the course (as only the official education department courses are funded or subsidised). I am still planning to do a refresher and become registered as a Doula as my next career move when I am in my dotage and it was an amazing experience which perhaps I will write about more fully one day.

How can the government afford it?

I couldn’t find anything online about how the government affords the scheme but I can only assume that matched against the cost of high attrition rates of teachers and the fact that this scheme has been going since the 1960s, one can only assume that it must pay off. I did find the results of a research piece which says that findings indicate that a sabbatical in conjunction with a professional training programme had great impact on strengthening the teachers’ professional image, and reducing their feelings of job burnout and intentions to leave their workplace or profession


What did it do for me professionally?

Having a year to do something different, to recharge, and learn new things is definitely empowering. The fact that it is encouraged and is not seen as a sign of weakness or that your enthusiasm for the profession is waning to take a year out, is a great thing. Being able to spend time in another school, as I said earlier, was also a great experience. Just stepping off the great hamster wheel of school life was so refreshing.

I recommend a sabbatical year for teachers in this country but…

…this is on several conditions:

  • I think it is important that this is a whole year and not a one month or six week offer as was trialled in England in 2001 and as is available in places like New Zealand. You can read the English DfES (as it was called then) report here
  • It shouldn’t be made into the usual highly-monitored surveillance and hoop-jumping exercise that is so often the case in this country. If we want to professionalise the profession, then trusting the professionals is a first big step. If you give people the space they will usually make good use of it
  • It should be simple to administer and not a bureaucratic and expensive nightmare. Teachers should be automatically enrolled and if at the end of the 6th year they decide to take the money and run, so be it. This is the only point at which they should be able to opt out
  • The sabbatical should be the grand festive climax of an ongoing expectation that teachers should be given space and adequate time for continuing professional development that is high quality and impactful as far as the teachers themselves are concerned. Short courses and INSETs are notorious for being often centred on fad topics and not adequate in length or quality to have a lasting impact on the teacher or the school
  • It would be great if as part of the salary-supplementing ideas teachers were paid to undertake research, supply teaching or other interesting and much-needed activities to support the profession as a whole
  • There should be a limit on the amount of paid work you can undertake during a sabbatical year and a minimum expectation regarding professional development hours per week so that you don’t just work yourself into the ground when you are meant to be recharging

I would love to hear other people’s ideas of how to make this work and I wonder to what extent it is on the agenda at all with the College of Teaching, the DfE or fellow people of the teaching profession in general.

 

 

 

 

Great teachers don’t give up on anyone

It’s nearly the end of the academic year and we are all exhausted – teachers, students, their parents, every member of the school staff. I am hoping that this post will give some sustenance to remind us why we do what we do.

Teaching is a vocation for which you must be well-trained and highly skilled. There are those that believe that it is also a calling. I certainly haven’t met a teacher who has stayed in the profession more than a couple of years who doesn’t feel a strong sense of moral purpose driving them.  I would go so far as to say that teaching can take you to a higher spiritual place of intense self-discovery and incredible connection with your students and your colleagues.

It can be increasingly difficult at times to connect to this moral purpose when the education system, indeed society as we know it, seems to be in immense pain. Writer and long-time teacher Parker Palmer writes in his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education:

“I call the pain that permeates education ‘the pain of disconnection.’ … Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.”

Palmer’s solution is to turn to spirituality. His interpretation of spirituality however is different from religion or the ‘spirituality of ends’ or those that have been apparently hijacked for obstructing rather than encouraging enquiry.  He says:

“A spirituality of ends wants to dictate the desirable outcomes of education in the life of the student. It uses the spiritual tradition as a template against which the ideas, beliefs, and behaviours of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his or her formal education concludes.

But that sort of education never gets started; it is no education at all. Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth — whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.”

As a teacher, it was important to me to try to connect, deeply and openly, with each of my students. I wanted to use my subject to awaken them spiritually, help them meet with their own struggles and triumphs not only through the subject but also through the very communal and simultaneously deeply personal business of learning. I wanted them to find the words to create an open dialogue about themselves as learners and to grow. I wanted this for myself too and felt that I was really living a deep spirituality through being a teacher. It was a magical time. It wasn’t easy but it was extremely rewarding and I still believe that it was the right attitude to have towards my teaching – aside from the fact that I couldn’t have done it any other way.

Ann Lammot in her book Stitches, a Handbook of Meaning Hope and Repair sums it up well when she says:

“To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.”

Giving up on people isn’t just about those that are less likely to succeed. I wanted to challenge myself to give as much attention, opportunity for growth and stretch to students that were successful academically as those that were struggling or indeed those pottering along in the middle. The quiet, well-behaved and high achieving students are often those we unwittingly give up on because they don’t seem to need much from us. At parents’ evenings, I would make sure I had identified and communicated a growth pointer for each and every student of mine that was possibly new to them or extending the boundaries of the usual academic commentary. I wanted them to find their bliss and connect to it wholeheartedly. I wanted them to know that their being seen as a success wasn’t dependent solely on their academic success. That’s a message usually reserved for the students that struggle but it is an equally important one for those that excel.

The very ‘Marmite’ educationalist Sir Ken Robinson speaks sense in my opinion of this ethos which is at the heart of his writing The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything . I think this is especially important when we are working with teenagers. It is such a time of confusion around identity and self-belief that connecting to your bliss and holding onto it can be a rudder in the choppy seas of teen-dom and adolescence. And we can model this and embody it through retaining a deep connection to our calling as teachers.

We need to be careful with this though and not confuse finding your strength and passion with simply making them the criteria for success. Among Robinson’s many observations is also one about our socially distorted metrics of achievement, in line with Alain de Botton’s words of caution about ‘success‘:

“It’s not enough to be good at something to be in your element…We’re being brought up with this idea that life is linear. This is an idea that’s perpetuated when you come to write your CV — that you set out your life in a series of dates and achievements, in a linear way, as if your whole existence has progressed in an ordered, structured way, to bring you to this current interview.”

He also says:

“One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

This calling, this spiritual connection to our vocation as teachers is reflected in  the Reverend Victoria Safford’s beautiful essay titled “The Small Work in the Great Work” from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times. This is a stunning collection of reflections by wise sages such as Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Nelson Mandela. It is named after Billie Holiday’s famous song lyric, “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”

Safford says:

“We stand where we will stand, on little plots of ground, where we are maybe “called” to stand (though who knows what that means?) — in our congregations, classrooms, offices, factories, in fields of lettuces and apricots, in hospitals, in prisons (on both sides, at various times, of the gates), in streets, in community groups. And it is sacred ground if we would honour it, if we would bring to it a blessing of sacrifice and risk…

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

This I believe is our calling, and it is our duty to continue right until the end of the academic year and into the next and so on for as long as we have decided that we will not give up on anyone.

I am indebted to the incredible research, writing and newsletters of Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings for this post. If you would like to subscribe to these please visit the Brain Pickings website HERE

 

 

Everyone judges parents

fish

Picture credit: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/505458758156210756/

 

While I am writing this, I can hear my neighbour screaming at her kids again. She and her partner have three kids – two teenagers and a ten year old. She rants, screams, swears at them and humiliates them. It makes my heart ache but I feel powerless to do much except stay vigilant. I guess it reminds me of my own experience growing up and I often catch myself at home standing motionless, listening, my inner-child self paralysed in poised readiness for fight or flight. When I come to, back in my adult self again, I realise I am just getting myself ready to calmly pop over and ask if I can help out at all – especially when the shouting escalates and I fear there might ensue physical violence. I try not to judge. I don’t know what demons they are battling there or how precarious their situation is. But I can’t be indifferent either to the fact that these children are getting a very raw deal. They are being damaged. I need to find a non-judgemental way to extend some kind of support.

 

People are quick to judge when things go wrong

There have been a few dramatic stories in the news lately where parents’ ability to care for their children have been called into question. The parents of the child that fell into the gorilla enclosure in the USA were immediately investigated for neglect and poor parenting; the parents that left their son behind in the forest as a punishment in Japan were heavily criticised for their drastic and draconian way to show their anger with their son for behaving badly; and the parents whose toddler was tragically snatched by an alligator while they were holidaying in Disney World sparked consternation that they could be so stupid as to let him paddle in an area renowned for the deadly beasts. People are quick to judge when things go wrong but parenting is a complex operation and it must be the only high impact, high risk and high responsibility role that we need no qualification at all to undertake. You can’t work with children without training and a DBS check. And yet to be a parent, not only is there no training, there is also not much support out there either formal or informal.

 

Do parents support each other enough?

Parents here can be awful to each other. It seems that the only time they work together is when they have a common enemy in the school. I have seen some really nasty rivalry and complete inability to show any solidarity or support for each other. Parents just seem to lack any imagination about how to relate to other parents. Having been brought up by a single parent with mental health issues who was completely unsupported by her own family, friends or neighbours, I have made it my business to extend support to other parents at my children’s school. Especially the single parents. Since there are two of us, my partner and I have always tried to make sure we extended offers of help with the school run, babysitting and sleepovers to free up those lone parents to have a bit of space and breathing room. It is nothing for us and can mean a lot to a parent that is juggling work, childcare and any hope of a social life.

When we were living in Israel, it was taken for granted that parents would look out for each other. It is customary for the school teacher to give parents a list of all of the children in the class, their parents’ names, phone numbers and their address. Every parent will then scan the list and make contact with others that live nearby. We’d find each other and work out who will do the pick ups and drop offs on which days. That’s just the way it works. Imagine my surprise when we moved here, my child starting reception didn’t get the list sent home and I heard my first reference to ‘data protection’ and ‘privacy’ when I asked about it at the school. Imagine my bafflement when on the first INSET day of the year there was no provision for the children and instead 300 children’s families were forced to each take a day off work to care for their child. It took me three years to convince fellow parents that we could actually each only take a day off work during half term if five families shared the care of four other classmates. That was the best half term break ever, with a small group of delighted children hanging out all week together with a different parent each day, at a park, a gallery, an outing somewhere different each day of the week. Why don’t we support each other more as parents when we are often struggling with the same issues?

 

Do schools support parents?

Some schools can have an extremely judgemental attitude towards parents.  Many schools’ attitude to parents seems to be that they are a nuisance whether their children behave well or not.  A lot of the school communications and processes are defensive and designed to keep parents at arm’s length on the one hand and also to berate them for not being involved enough in their child’s education on the other hand. As parents who are both in demanding full time employment, my partner and I have found that the school’s invitations to be involved during school hours was really difficult for us. I find that the role that parents and teachers play in bringing up a child together is hugely important and yet, I have only once heard a teacher in this country say anything from the heart to this effect. She started the parents evening by talking about my child in a loud and enthusiastic voice “I LOVE A_____! I really love her!” This is what every parent wants to hear. They want to know that you love and care for their child. And once that is established, the parent will work with the teacher wholeheartedly. Once this is established, a parent will be ready to hear about the things that aren’t going so well, and they will work with the teacher to help create an atmosphere of mutual respect in the classroom. There is no home-school agreement on branded school paper sent home in a brown envelope that can replace this.

When I worked as a year 7 form tutor at a secondary school, I had a wonderful line manager and mentor who coached me on how to work with parents. She insisted all form tutors hold an evening meeting with the parents of the children in their class before the start of term. She scripted my opening speech for me and made me work on it until I owned it. The basic stance was that I am about to receive their children and spend more time each day with them during the week than they will. I would need their support and guidance to understand their child and draw out the best from them, and I would need them to support and respect my judgement as a teacher. We would need to communicate clearly, regularly and responsibly with each other. We would need to work together to raise their child. It made a real difference saying this loud and clear and to their faces.

 

Parents and teachers need to model tolerance

This week’s Secret Teacher article is a clear example of this judgemental and unimaginative stance towards parents. It doesn’t take a genius to see why parents might have sent their children with inappropriate contraband and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to have had a discussion with the children about why the rules for the trip are what they are. They might even appreciate them if you explain your rationale to both parents and children. I really believe that if this ground work is done at the start as I was asked to do as a teacher, and is maintained throughout, it should be easier to guide parents as to what is appropriate beyond sending a list of instructions home every so often. After all, parents and teachers alike are educators and we must model this at all times. We should also model tolerance to difference and be lifelong learners open to learning from parents as well as learning about parenting that differs from what we know. This doesn’t mean we need to compromise on what we believe to be true or stand by when children are being damaged or are damaging others. It means we need to make more effort to do the right thing for those in our care and at times to extend our care beyond our own charges.

A teacher in life and after death

Painting by mumPainting by Sigrid Rabiger c.1960

 

Last Friday I went to Southwark Cathedral for a thanksgiving service put on by Kings College London and the London and South East Committee of Anatomists. Hundreds of medical and healthcare science students benefit from hands-on experiences with real human bodies. Each year, a number of generous and public-spirited people donate their bodies for the benefit of medical education, training and research*. In August, one of those to donate their body was my mum.

When it became clear that she was dying, finding solace in the practical, I decided to familiarise myself with the paperwork in the folder marked “after my death” so that I would make sensible choices when the time came. I had learnt over the last few roller coaster years of acting on her behalf that being informed was essential to good decision-making. It was a bit of a surprise to see that on August 27th 2008 my mum signed and sent off papers to donate her body to medical science. It was lucky I found this when I did as there is a short window in which you have to arrange for the collection of the body so that it can be prepared for its use by medical students for the next 3-5 years.

Part of the motivation for my move back to England in 2007 after over 10 years living and teaching abroad, was to try to be closer to my mum and to extend some support for her. This wasn’t easy as my mum has been a very troubled person since her adolescence and by then was elderly, isolated and suffering from various health issues which inevitably also impacted on her already fragile mental health. I and my little family did our best and my siblings provided what support they could from abroad. But over time, her health failed to the extent that she had a massive stroke in January 2014 and ended up needing 24 hour nursing care.  A year and a half later – 7 years after she signed those papers – she slowly and gently faded away. I was there close by, watching over her, so grateful that after such an awful life of suffering and brutality she could be granted such a peaceful, forgiving and gentle passage to whatever lay beyond this world. By some strange coincidence, her body was donated the very same date that she signed those papers, 27th August 2015 – my 45th birthday no less.

Because Southwark Cathedral was so packed with families, I found myself sitting  in amongst the Kings College London choir, while they belted out the most heavenly and uplifting sounds. My eyes were fixed on their open mouths and the organist’s back, in these regal surroundings. The ceremony was non-religious and highly mindful of how people of all and no religion approach life and death. And the title of ‘thanksgiving’ went far beyond my expectations.

First up was a student physiotherapist. The irony didn’t escape me considering how central physiotherapists have been in my life with my disabled knee that I have been struggling with since I ruptured my ACL. Immediately I was struck by the passion with which this student described her love of learning, and the genuine gratitude she felt: “thank you for animating the transient, mortal, human body into a timeless gift – that of scientific learning and medical teaching. It is invaluable”.

She went on, “as the canvas is to the artist, the body is to the physiotherapists and it is with huge respect and thanks I can honestly say how enriching it has been to navigate my learning in this visual and tangible way”. You will understand if you read on why this reference to the artist warmed my heart.

She said, “Your loved ones donated their body to our medical curriculum, and they became our silent teachers”.

Rather than describe the ceremony in blow by blow detail, I wanted to find a way to express here how my mum, a parent who in many ways had failed me as a role model and a teacher, also inspired me to become a teacher myself and has even helped me positively shape my parenting too. I was so awestruck by the fact that this trip into the unknown at Southwark Cathedral helped me continue trying to make sense of so much that I am still grappling with.

I believe that everyone is a teacher and you can learn from everyone. One of the things I know about learning from other people is that you often have to separate people out into segments of their person to understand them and to gain from them what they are there to teach you. What I mean by this can be illustrated by my experience of my mum. She had a childhood filled with horrific abuse and mistreatment. She escaped her family to art school and by the early 1960s had been hanging out with a bohemian crowd of fellow artists. Our family home was filled with paintings by her from this era and today my siblings and I have her bold and vibrant paintings in our own homes. By the time I came along, she was broken. Two failed marriages behind her,  she found herself a single parent of two small children and pregnant with me, trying to hold her demons at bay and build a life for herself and her children. It must have been the most awful of times and while she essentially replicated the abuse, neglect and mistreatment on her own children, we somehow were always able to see beyond, to the person she would have liked to have been. We were always able to see her own small-child self battling the demons that had seized her. We were able to see her as the raging adult, fragile and let down by those that should have protected her, somewhere in the fire and brimstone.

By some miracle, while we were small children, my mum built herself a career. It was survival. She had been a stay at home mum until my older brother was five but with my dad gone, she had to work. She built on her knowledge as an artist and taught. In the 1970s, she taught basket weaving and sculpture at nursing homes, what were then called ‘handicapped centres’, and in a unit for school-phobic children. She brought home materials and we all learned to paint, draw, weave, do macramé, plaster-casting, sculpting, lino prints, the works. When she taught us, the irritable, quick to be triggered, lashing out hands, would diminish. She would connect for a moment and her voice and eyes would soften.

Through my early secondary school years in the 1980s my mum trained to be an art therapist at evening school while working and running the family home during the day. She started working at a centre for autistic children and later at a special school, and became hooked. She read voraciously, she became involved in what would now be deemed as action-research, constantly thinking about and writing about art as therapy. She found the personal and professional relationships extremely challenging and often felt alienated and misunderstood by her colleagues. But she was real and intense and absolutely committed to her work with the children as a teacher.

Fast forward to 2014. She has had the stroke, is in intensive care, then rehab for months and we are faced with £1,000 a week nursing home costs. We need to clear out her house and sell it to foot the bill. She has always been a hoarder and this was the most visceral and ghastly of tasks. I can only liken it to an archaeological dig – perhaps somewhere like Pompeii – each find throwing up images of a life lived and a disaster that had dashed away the possibilities somehow. Each room contained layers of a life holed up in the same house since the 1960s.

In one room she stored her art teacher and art therapy days. Piles and piles of powder paints, papers, work books and guide books, felt tip pens, huge pots of paintbrushes, reams of cane, lino cutting tools, and other dried out, dust encrusted items. On one side of the room, stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling were makeshift portfolios filled with children’s drawings, each picture dated and labelled in her spidery semi-legible handwriting. Alongside them were albums of photos of the same works, also labelled and dated, bursting at the seams. She was carrying out a decades-long study, building up her evidence, complemented by her reading and illegible writing. Every wall, table, chair, surface of the house was filled with papers and books on child psychology, psychotherapy and art. She was a teacher, a student, a researcher, living and breathing her profession. It was painful to dispose of all of it.

I’m recalling this incredible labour of love of hers. As the choir is singing the painfully beautiful John Taverner’s Funeral Ikos I am thinking of my mum as the ‘silent teacher’ and as a parent. As both parent and teacher myself I have come to realise that one gives so much of oneself but that this giving is often done essentially out of necessity and not always from choice. As both parent and teacher you can be driven to give above and beyond because you are passionately trying to do the right thing. And similarly, you can be pushed to even going against what your principled mind truly believes in, because you are at the edge of your capacity to cope as a person. My mum, as a parent and as a teacher was often so unable to help others on so many occasions, including her own children, because she was so helpless herself. She was operating at the edge of and beyond her capacity so much of the time. And yet, as a teacher and as a parent, I know that she was so committed and fighting to stay committed all along. She loved the children she worked with and she loved her own children despite the inherited demons that led her to commit crimes against them.

Through donating her body in this way, we were being denied closure and the opportunity to bury her body – perhaps just as we may never have closure and bury what we went through in childhood. However, it was clear to me that my mum had chosen this option with clarity of mind and because of her conviction about the importance of learning, passing on learning to others and supporting our beloved NHS.  In amongst the constant chaos and unpredictable sanity, my mum made a clear, principled and generous decision that embodied her political, spiritual and moral beliefs and I am extremely proud of her for doing so. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “the only gift is a portion of thyself” and I know with complete certainty that this is what she did her best to give in her life as a parent and a teacher, and again in her death as a “silent teacher”.

In memory of Sigrid Alison Rabiger 02.05.1934 – 26.08.2015, artist, parent, teacherMum drawing

*If you are interested in finding out more about donating your body to medical science there is a good article from The Guardian here or click here for the Royal College of Surgeons site