Tag Archives: teenagers

Say what you mean and mean what you say: jargonising the education system

roadman
SMS exchange with the teen 2017

The year ahead needs a jargon buster

I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.

When lingo is laminated

I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.

One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…

With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language.  So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”

One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?

Jargon is everywhere

It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”

The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:

“What does good look like in this space?”

“We should roadmap that issue”

“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”

“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”

“Let’s kick that into the long grass”


Workplace woes

Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.

Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?

I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.

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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.

On authenticity as a teacher, a parent and elsewhere

authenticity

 

Authenticity and teaching

As a teacher, I had ideas about what a good teacher-student relationship should be. I was lucky that my teacher training course included masses of time and discussion on the philosophical and deeply personal questions of what education is, why we ourselves want to be teachers and what models there were in the world. We read about and visited all sorts of schools – those working to a democratic model, or to an experimental choice-based one, to systems with rigid rote learning.

I had some woeful examples of teachers as a student myself and the thing that fired my enthusiasm for being a teacher in the first place was a need to ensure that I could reach into hearts and minds and touch them positively, no matter how much other adults may have let them down. I wanted to be someone who would be respected because I had earned it by being respectful myself, and that could inspire young people because I was constantly learning and discovering things myself. I had to prove to myself as much as anyone else that I could be authentic, and that I could keep clear and healthy boundaries while inspiring, instructing and sometimes compelling students to learn and grow. I learned so much about being a good leader as a teacher, and of course I made some awful, embarrassing mistakes finding my way. The mistakes most often happened when I was trying to hide who I was in that moment – that I was confused or simply unprepared, that I was trying to grab control and respect rather than doing what I needed to do to be in control and to gain respect.

But the thing I learned the most was that authenticity isn’t even a choice. A teacher is absolutely transparent to their class from the moment they set foot in the classroom and any attempt to be something you are not, will backfire on you. This self-awareness can be your biggest impediment and greatest source of empowerment.

Authenticity and parenting

It’s kind of obvious but so easy to try to avoid facing up to, that parenting is leadership. Although you spend much of your waking life under the watchful eye of your offspring or the children you have decided to bring into your life through adoption, fostering or caring for, you can easily kid yourself (pardon the pun) that you can hide who you really are.

Before my children were born I had all sorts of ideas about how I would parent them. Again, my own parents were not good role models. In fact they were appalling. As a result, becoming a parent myself was not a simple or obvious choice. I came at it with an attitude that it would probably stir up all sorts of pain and challenge for me and that I would need to work hard to separate my own childhood from that of my children. I couldn’t fix my childhood through my own children’s lives but I would do my best to make sure that I was as truthful about this as possible with myself and with my partner.

When children are little, we can believe the illusion that we are omnipotent leaders by adopting the “do as I say” rule. Later, as the babies and toddlers become children and young adults, for some parents it expands to “do as I say, don’t do as I do”. The Modern Brits are world famous for their systems and processes for everything. I became keenly aware of these bureaucratic techniques when I moved back to England 9 years ago – the naughty step, time out, five minute warnings, rigid bath and bedtime routines, reward and punishment charts and more.  The beautiful thing I am learning now, being the parent of a teenager and a pre-teen is that authenticity can have its  very own calming effect and can diffuse potentially explosive situations better than any of these techniques. Authenticity can also teach compassion, empathy, and that to err and to fail is painful but part of learning and growing.

This all makes me sound either holier than thou or like I am a bumbling idiot over-sharing my vulnerability with all and sundry. Actually, as a teacher, I earned the title of “firm but fair” from my students and my kids often refer to me the same way. I do believe we should try to model self-discipline, diligence, reliability, hard work, courage, empathy, generosity and all of the good stuff. But over time, I have learnt humility in the form of being able to apologise (agonising as it feels before you do it), reconsidering my position because I have listened and really heard what my child is saying to me, and other useful lessons of authenticity. I have learned to say that the way that I spoke or acted was absolutely unacceptable and that I am really sorry and ashamed. And I have learnt to say that I am struggling and need some space to try and work through the inner conflict that is making me want to lash out or close down inwards.

Authenticity in the workplace

I’m getting used to my new place of work and the people that I work with. I’ve only been there for six months. It’s quite an extraordinary workplace culture and I have written a little about this in a previous post. One thing that it demands is great authenticity. Like teaching and parenting, working in an open-plan office and alongside a small team of bright people doing great things means you are constantly visible to each other.

I have thought a lot about how you can be a leader in an organisation which is quite flat in its hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion I have reached is that authenticity is essential. Part of this authenticity I realise, especially as a woman prone to at times doubting her abilities,  means being really clear on where you absolutely do have the skills, experience and confidence to lead your colleagues no matter their status.  Alongside this it’s important to not lose sight of where you will need challenge, support, affirmation or understanding from colleagues and where you must give these things unconditionally in order to encourage authenticity from others. It also means you need to be clear that at any point, and from any colleague no matter their age, experience or standing, you are going to learn and grow.

Authenticity online

Authenticity online has got to be the most complicated feat of all. It’s the place where you can have a massive impact and yet can be completely unaware of how your words are being read and what meaning, right or wrong, is being read into them. It is also a place where what you say can be misinterpreted or can ruffle feathers even if you don’t intend it to.

I use several platforms on social media. I use Facebook for friends and family although I find it is most useful as a repository for photos and a place to go when I can’t sleep. I like Twitter as a way to stay up to date with education sector developments and discussions. I am starting to develop my voice as a blogger and without the constraints of 140 characters, it’s probably the place I can be most authentically me. Part of my need for authenticity is accepting the dangers inherent in social media. I know that every so often, something will misfire, be misread, be badly worded by me, will strike a disharmonious chord to someone else’s ears. But like teaching, aiming to connect, share, resonate, inspire, enthuse and be authentic can be so rewarding for those touched by it, yourself included.

I bumped into an old work colleague on the Underground recently. I haven’t seen him for probably 4 years but we are Facebook friends, watching each other’s children growing up and hitting ‘like’ on each other’s posts occasionally. I was so stunned when, after we chatted a bit, he said that he wanted to thank me for my authenticity and openness on Facebook. I had posted quite a bit about my journey as a carer for my mother through the decline of her mental and physical health which culminated in her having a massive stroke and becoming completely dependent day and night for all her physical needs. In writing about it, I felt it was important for those close to me to know what I was experiencing and it was therapeutic for me to write even a few sentences about it. But I also felt that it was important to others who might have been through something similar or might go through it sometime in the future to know that it is okay to speak about it with authenticity and to reach out for some support.

Authenticity as myself

I think as I become older (and I’m feeling this now especially as I have been through some quite gruelling life experiences yet again in the last couple of years) I have come to realise that I cannot be anyone but myself. Of course, I am committed as ever to lifelong learning, to growing and developing as a person, as a parent, as a professional. But with age, I have realised that this is it. The me that I am is work in progress, nimble and agile, but I am also like a great static cliff hammered by seas and the elements. I have taken a shape that is unique and recognisable and if people want to come closer explore the subtleties, I can do nothing but stand still.

On empathy and viewing education through a lens of childhood

heart and brain

Image source: https://atmanco.com/blog/working-environment/importance-of-empathy-in-your-organization/

I read an article this weekend about Why You Should Have More Empathy and it got me thinking about our society and how managerialist culture, the obsession with productivity and outputs, measurement and data can really mean empathy and a place for human beings’ emotional investment takes a huge hit. It was later in the weekend that Alison Peacock tweeted “Leadership that views primary education through the lens of childhood is essential if we are to provide optimum learning for all” and I realised that this is completely connected to my earlier thoughts about empathy.

Somehow, we have created an education system where the child, at every stage in their childhood development, seems to be invisible in the setting of education policy. We are hell bent on trying to define where they should end up, what level they are at as compared with where they should be, what part of productivity in the capitalist machine they should take. And we are using our children’s learning as a way to measure their teachers’ success in instilling in their students the latest fad of what a good curriculum should look like. Through a lack of empathy we are dehumanising our children, their parents and their teachers in favour of an apparently more superior, logical and linear thinking, data and measurement.

To illustrate my point, I was flicking through my Year 8 daughter’s English workbook after she had shown me some really interesting homework she was doing on comparing two poems that show panic and confusion in very different ways. “I need to write more” she said, looking glum. “Looks good to me, you have argued your points well and there seems to be every inch of each poem covered” I responded – I try not to get involved, but I was an English teacher for a decade, I think I recognise good work when I see it. As I was turning the pages of her workbook, my eye rested on one of those little “Oral feedback given” stamps and then on the next page in red pen: “You need to write another paragraph – how can you maintain a level 7 if you don’t write more?!” Argh. There it is again.

It made me think about how an injection of empathy could impact on situations I have experienced lately connected with education. One example is around SATs again. My youngest is in year 6 and I have written recently about her experience as I see it. I watched the “Kids Strike” with interest last week. The parents’ slogan of “Let Kids be Kids” is catchy but not very clear. What I would hope they are trying to say is that kids generally love to learn, and if done well, they can even quite enjoy the challenge of a test or two along the way so long as they understand that this is a good way to see whether what they have learnt has stuck. If it hasn’t, their teachers can then ask, is that across the whole class? This might indicate that there might be a problem with the teaching, the curriculum, the planning over time for the whole class and it could help the teachers to think again. Or there might be a problem for individual children within the class, indicating the same issues may have affected a handful of children alongside other factors that might be getting in the way of their learning. Again, so useful to know to make sure the right things happen next.

But how did these parents of Year 2 children get to such a place that they felt they had to take this radical action and stage a strike? How did the conflict of empathy vs. rigid policy play out such that they had to make a stand based on their own empathic understanding of what is right for their children over and above what government thinks is right for children. I think in part it might be because at no point was there any thought put in, when orders were passed top-down regarding the Year 2 SATs test, into the feelings that would be stirred up in the headteachers, teachers, children and their parents. Perhaps a little step by step, empathetic, easing in would have gone a long way. It’s so telling that almost as an afterthought a template letter has been adopted and circulated this Friday by some headteachers nationwide, telling kids that they are awesome whatever the outcome and to relax and take it easy, ahead of the Year 6 SATs next week. Empathy yes, but so late in the process it’s almost ridiculous.

Another example this week was that I had my first experience of feeling so exercised by a situation unfolding in my older daughter’s secondary school that I felt I had to go and speak with the headteacher. For context, it takes a lot for me to go into school and say what I think is not going well and I make sure I write an email at least twice a year to the school thanking them and outlining what I think has gone well. I asked a couple of headteacher acquaintances for their advice on how to go about this and the answers were pretty much the same: go immediately and speak to the school. A couple mentioned following the school’s complaints procedure so I thought I would check this out online and try to be a good citizen. It irked me to think about this as a complaint though. I am not a consumer, receiving bad service here. I am a parent, who through listening to their child and discussing this situation, has realised that for the school to grow and learn, I really must feed this back. My daughter, who is so empathetic it is sometimes paralysing for her, was worried about the teacher getting told off, and of making her feel bad. She could see why this teacher had behaved the way she did and that the teacher obviously had a difficult conflict of interests that she was wrestling with.

The school complaints procedure is the most classic example of British, managerialist, bureaucratic and unempathetic prose written. It immediately starts with almost legalistic jargon mentioning statutory duty, with an array of numbered clauses down the margins. It would make even the meekest parent bristle ready for a fight. I would love to see something that starts perhaps like this: “We take care and pride in our school and our relationship with the children and parents in our school community. We recognise that we may not always get this right, and we appreciate your feedback and support to help our school be a place of true learning and growth. Therefore, we have written this guide to help you through what we perceive to be a fair and correct way to register a complaint, suggest a change, give some feedback or request a greater understanding of what we do at the school…..”

I practice what I preach in the workplace. Managerialist culture can fail to recognise the importance of the emotional life of your fellow colleagues and yet this failure is the very thing that can hold back effectiveness and quality of work. I feel it is my duty to act with empathy with the people I work alongside. It is such a strong and relevant ‘tool’ to begin with when setting a vision, working towards targets and goals and when leading and supporting other colleagues. Always the first thing on my mind when setting out the strategy of how we will get from here to there, is who are the people, what do I want them to feel, how will I communicate this to them? And in the current education sector, I do feel that unless we can find a way to disentangle the short-term political gains from the long-term educational aims, we are forever going to be locked into this politicised, marketised, unempathetic and managerialist attitude. The representation of logical thinking, measurement and data as inherently superior to emotional and intuitive reasoning can lead to the more extreme and rigid forms of managerialism we are seeing in the education sector and many other workplaces. We need a more humanised, responsive and relationship-based practice at the heart of what we do in order to succeed.

 

 

The importance of induction and orientation

Invest_in_induction_-_first_day_induction_timeline1

In 2007, aged 37, I returned to England, having been living, studying and working abroad since I was 24. I had spent the entirety of my working life abroad pretty much, and knew I would need to rapidly learn what it means to be English again. The country – and my home city – had changed beyond recognition in the time I had been away. I went through a period of re-orientation alongside my husband and children who had never lived in the country before and didn’t speak English fluently. I wish there had been some kind of induction or orientation for us all.

Induction for school governors

When I became a governor for the first time at a primary school in London, it took me a while to work out what I was meant to be doing, what the school was like, what the aims and vision of the governing body and SLT were. It didn’t have to be like that but it was, because there was no induction of any kind offered by the school or the governing body. I realised that there was no induction for probably these three reasons. The first is simply because the governing body was finding its own way under a headteacher who seem to regard them as a group of potentially interfering parents who needed to be kept at arm’s length. The second, more disturbing, was because there seemed to be a massive assumption that everyone knew what needed to be done, what the expectations were and how to behave in meetings. They were all white, middle class, professional people who had clocked up many hours on committees and in meetings of all sorts. This made me question how anyone who wasn’t au fait with all of the associated jargon and mannerisms of this very British system, was supposed to find a way in to this closed club. And the third reason was that no-one wanted to admit to anyone else that they had no real clue how it all worked in the very specific and very complex world of school governance, what we were all apparently buying into and what we were meant to do.

Such was my dismay that I took myself off to a local authority-run induction session. It was very telling. We were asked to bring along the School Development Plan (ours was a bound tome written in comic sans and that had no input at all whatsoever from the governing body) and a group of about 20 of us spent a day being inducted very thoroughly into the role, responsibilities, aims and ethos of good school governance. It may just have been me who saw this, but the socio-economic and ethnic mix of this group of people seemed very different to that of our governing body. Perhaps we all ended up there for the same reasons.

Suffice to say, I never really recovered from this bumpy start to my 4 years as a governor. This coloured my whole view of the gaping chasm between what good governance might look like and what I had experienced and it made me vow to ensure that new governors to our governing body would not feel the same. It took me years to push it through but eventually, as a parting gift at the end of my term, I did leave a thorough induction plan, clear materials, a buddying system and a vision for induction into the school’s governing body. It’s probably an unused file in someone’s inbox.

Good examples of induction policies for school governors

East Barnet School in London has an induction policy that states clearly that the induction process is seen as an investment, leading to more effective governance and retention of governors. It has a requirement for the following:

  • The Chair of Governors will welcome new governors to the governing body
  • New governors will have the opportunity to tour the school and meet staff and students
  • A mentor will accompany new governors to their first full governing body meeting, as required

The policy also lists the documents that new governors will receive within two weeks of appointment and suggests documents for them to read, such as the school’s latest Ofsted report and the school prospectus.

There is a checklist for new governors to complete. There is space to record the date when each stage of the induction process was carried out, and to confirm receipt of various documents.

St Giles Community School in Warwickshire has an induction policy and induction pack for new governors. It looks at the roles of the headteacher, the governor mentor, and the training link governor.

The document explains that the induction process will be co-ordinated by the Chair of Governors, and that everyone involved must follow the agreed programme. It says:

The governor mentor is available to help and support the new governor, before, during and after his/her first meeting as appropriate.

He/she should have experience as a governor, a good understanding of educational terminology and acronyms and good interpersonal skills.

There is a table listing different stages of the induction process, along with who is responsible for carrying them out and when they will take place

School induction for Year 7s

My oldest daughter started Year 8 this year. When she left her primary school and began secondary school, she was lucky enough to go to a week-long summer-school that the school organised for all Year 7s. It was a great week – not least for us parents as it was free childcare for an entire week. But on many levels it helped this potentially stressful time of new beginnings pass joyfully and without drama. Having Year 7s in school for a week without any other students there gave them space and time to practise the journey in to school, to find their way around the building without fear of being teased for getting lost, and gave them time to bond with each other without having to worry about being quiet and disciplined in lessons yet. They got to know the school rules, the atmosphere, and the expectations which were clearly set out to them and they also got to ask questions and feel confident that they knew more or less what lay before them.

Ernest Bevin College and Sixth Form Centre in Wandsworth has a number of transition strategies to help new Year 7 pupils settle in, including holding a summer school like the one my daughter attended.

The summer school lasts for two weeks and all Year 6 pupils who have accepted a place at the school are invited to attend. In 2014 the activities included:

  • A welcome day for pupils to get to know the school and each other
  • A team building day at an outdoor adventure centre
  • A ‘CSI science day’ for pupils to work in teams to solve a crime
  • A celebration event where pupils show parents and guests what they have been involved in during the camp

You can see a timetable of the summer school activities here. Other transition arrangements include only having Year 7 pupils in school on the first day of term, and holding Year 7 and  Year 8 ‘buddy afternoons’ in the third week of term to help students get to know pupils in other tutor groups and the year above them.

In June 2013, the department published findings from a National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) survey of 21,000 disadvantaged 11-year-olds’ views on starting secondary school, and whether summer school had changed these. It concluded there was a “small positive effect on transition to secondary schools”, especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. NFER research from 2006 looks at transition from primary to secondary school in Wales. It includes four case studies of good practice. Strategies identified in the first case study from a primary school include:

  • Designing a bridging project in science for pupils to begin in Year 6 and complete in Year 7
  • Meetings between the secondary school’s special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) and the primary school to discuss pupils with SEN, and meet their parents
  • Year 5 pupils visiting the secondary school
  • Year 6 pupils attending the secondary school for a number of PE lessons, and two induction days (in the autumn and summer terms)

The third case study, from a large secondary school, describes the following actions that the school and local schools took to support transition:

  • Headteachers of all schools in the catchment area met on a termly basis
  • Members of the school’s English department met with primary school colleagues to plan a bridging project
  • Primary school teachers observed secondary school lessons in core subjects
  • The head of Year 7 met with Year 6 pupils twice, to deliver information and invite questions from pupils
  • Sixth forms pupils were asked to help Year 7 pupils settle in, and the school held a day where only Year 7 and Year 12 students were present

The school in the fourth case study developed a proforma to gather information from primary schools about pupil’s test results, SEN, strengths and weaknesses, conduct/attitude, and attendance record.

It’s so sad therefore that the government decided to scrap the funding for these summer schools especially since we know that they do seem to impact on students’ integration and attainment having attended them. Many schools will now need to charge for these summer schools which will defeat the very important purpose of targeting underprivileged students.

Induction for new staff members

Most of the jobs I have taken on have found me working things out for myself and without a clear induction – mainly because I seem to have taken on new roles within an organisation, in start-up situations, or there has been an element of make-do-and-mend in the workplace I entered. However, I know that as a line manager, I have always ensured that my new staff members are inducted clearly and in a gradual and logical way. It can be overwhelming the amount of information one needs to take on in a new job. And it can be reassuring to know that your line manager and colleagues actually understand the workings of their organisation, the role you are taking on and what is expected of you.

The NCTL sums it up well when they say that induction should “be designed to help the new member of staff to contribute quickly and fully to the life and work of the school. This requires processes that will enable them to be integrated socially as well as formally into the school community”. Similarly to students starting a new school, The National College says that induction can help ensure new employees are highly motivated, and that employees who settle quickly will become productive and efficient from early on. Induction should cover:

  • A brief overview of the school and its management structure
  • Conditions of employment, for example hours of work and holidays
  • Procedures relating to sickness notification
  • Health and safety arrangements

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has produced a booklet with advice on the recruitment and induction process in all types of organisations. The benefits of an effective induction programme reflect those outlined by the NCTL and are:

  • A more settled employee
  • A more effective response to training
  • Lower turnover
  • Improved industrial relations

The booklet also says:

  • A good reception on the first day, where the line manager spends time with the new employee, is important
  • A written checklist of what should be covered in the programme is useful, so the new starter and the manager know what has and has not been covered, and to give some structure to the programme
  • Care should be taken not to overload the new employee with information
  • Written materials, such as a handbook, can cover key information and help employees to remember it
  • A guide, mentor or buddy can usefully help with everyday questions, introduce other co-workers, and explain the layout of the building

Induction is important

I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that induction is absolutely crucial in any organisation to get newcomers off to the right start. I hope that the examples given here have been useful and that they can give some food for thought on how you work with new people, set the standards and get colleagues and peers feeling clear, focussed, involved and enthused from their first interaction with you.

If you need any help, some constructive criticism or support, you know where to find me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing a secondary school: tips for parents and schools

Choose well

Living in London, we are blessed with an amazing array of schools. Theoretically, we have massive choice too – although in many areas, unless you live literally spitting distance from the school, your child will not necessarily get a place there as they are all so oversubscribed.  Many parts of the country do not have much of a choice and the ‘local’ school is really quite far away. I acknowledge this with a heavy heart and realise that because of this, my blog post may be irritating for you as it really doesn’t reflect your own experience at all. I am drawing only on my own experience here.

When we were selecting a school for our oldest a couple of years ago, it was an odd time for us. We had been living in two-bedroom rented shoe-boxes for years and had finally scraped enough money and courage/denial together to take on a mortgage and look for a place to buy. But it would have to be miles from where we were currently living, in areas we could better afford. So, having to select a school based on its proximity to our address at the time but easy enough to reach by public transport from wherever we ended up was one of the major factors in our choices. It did set me apart from my child’s classmates’ parents and it made me able to step back and see a lot from their reactions to school choice. I will outline some of this here. If I know you, you read my blog and see yourself in some of this, it may or may not be you so please don’t take offence!

Parents are extremely anxious
In fact some of them are so anxious that it is as if they have completely lost their minds. The most anxious will be positioning themselves in week 21 of their pregnancy so they are close to the ‘good schools’ and many will be visiting open days and checking out schools when their child is in Year 5. This is possibly a good idea because you feel you are ticking off some schools on your list early, but a school can change radically in the space of two years, let alone 12, so it may be a false economy.

Such is their anxiety that parents will ask each other, compare, gossip, chatter, and generally become agitated and/or defensive throughout the run up to making school choices. The people we shared a playground with were such a wonderful diverse mix from loaded bankers or TV executives with million-pound homes and yummy-mummy ladies who lunch, to unemployed young families, or key-workers living in social housing and a number of quite recent arrivals from Somalia, Turkey, Eastern Europe and other places around the globe, finding their way.  The general feeling seemed to be that this was an important choice to make and we all wanted to get it right. But the reasons for our choices need to be right for each family, their needs and particular agenda.

A tip for parents: Obviously you want to make the right decision but try not to discuss it with other parents too much. Spend time listening and learning and remember that your child will be feeling anxious too. Do your best to reduce the anxiety levels and to be upbeat. And most of all, be clear on what matters to you and don’t let another parent influence you so much that they essentially decide where your child goes to school.

A tip for schools: Many primary schools do a stunningly bad job at supporting parents at this time. Make sure you make links with local schools and provide as much information as possible for families of children in Year 6. If you haven’t heard of the Meet the Parents movement, it’s time to get involved. I have helped organise a few of these and would be glad to help you get one up and running whether you are a parent or a school teacher.

Parents tend to compare their own education to schools today
I heard a lot of parents compare their own schooling to the places that were on offer for their children. It’s easy enough to do, but a mistake in my opinion. In my case, I took a bet, took the entrance exam and ended up going to a girls’ grammar school where I was the only kid on free school meals and felt completely out of my depth. I hated every single moment there but I am not my child, it is not the 1980s and a lot of the rationale for single-sex schools – for girls especially – are completely different to the fuddy-duddy beliefs of the era I grew up in. You only have to hear someone like Vanessa Ogden from Mulberry School for Girls talk about women’s education to know how different the agenda is today. Make sure you are informed.

I taught for a period in a democratic school and the problem was similar there. Some parents who had suffered from their own overbearing parents and strict schooling would send their children to our school because this is what they would have liked for themselves. But it was often a disaster for the school and the child alike as, having had a permissive childhood lacking in boundaries, being faced with making responsible choices, having freedom and trust often left them completely unable to cope in this school environment. In many cases, a more conventional school would have better served their needs.

A tip for parents: Treat what you learn about a school as if you are a stranger from a strange land. Resist the urge to compare. Try instead to put your child’s best interests at the heart of your choice. Imagine your child there and ask your child if they could imagine themselves there. It’s not that important whether you would like to be there as the child you once were.

A tip for schools: You can’t over-emphasise what kinds of students would thrive at your school, and you would do well to set out for parents and students scenarios for the different kinds of children you serve and their different interests. Make sure there is a diverse and accurate mix of photos, case studies, stories and examples so prospective parents have a chance to ‘see’ their child at your school.

Parents usually think of their Year 6 child rather than the Year 12 child they could become
We had realised pretty quickly that walking 5 minutes to school would not be an option for us. This is because we were applying in one catchment area knowing that by the time the new school year started we were most likely going to be living in a totally different one.  There was no way around this as you can’t apply speculatively for the area you think you are going to be living in. This made it easier to realise that our small, inexperienced Year 6 child would need to get some know-how travelling on public transport and that she would not be 12 forever. Many parents limit their choices because they simply cannot imagine their child being independent, travelling on public transport or getting about without them being there too. I was amazed and delighted with how quickly our oldest took to travelling by bus, grabbing herself a snack with friends on the way home, until she is now totally confident to go anywhere so long as it features on Google Maps.

A tip for parents: You really need to let go and think about the young adult that your child will grow into during their time at school. Year 6 is a time to start letting them travel to school alone, make forays to the shops, lead the way on public transport on family outings and more. Don’t rule out a school because your child has never walked that far or taken a bus before.

A tip for schools: Make sure prospective parents know how your students get to your school, which bus routes they take, whether they cycle or walk, if there is organised transport or whether there are car pools. Reassure them that they can do it too.

Nothing is irreversible
I brought my family to England when the kids were nearly 5 and 2 and neither of them spoke English with any fluency. It was tough but it taught us all that they were able to cope. For the first 6 years, we stayed at the same primary school but moved home three times and then finally to our own home in a different area of London when the oldest went to secondary school. Because of the move, the youngest had to start Year 5 in a new primary school – it was the making of her, although she was convinced it would be awful.

They say that control freaks and perfectionists make the worst parents and if having a baby doesn’t knock any illusions of control or perfection out of you, surely the passing of the years should. But if you have somehow got to the age when you are trying to make the best decision you can about secondary schools and you’re still convinced you will get it 100% right, one thing to bear in mind is that nothing is irreversible when it comes to school choices. If the worst comes to the worst and you, the school and your child realise for whatever reasons that this wasn’t the right choice, you can always think about applying to move elsewhere.  Parents and children alike often see this as horror of horrors, disruptive, tainted with failure and negatively life-changing. I think it is really helpful to say this message loud and clear to your child from the beginning: “Sweetie, if it doesn’t work out, there are other schools that are also great. You will be fine, but if it doesn’t work out, we will think again”. In most cases people do make the right choice anyway.

A tip for parents: Take the pressure off yourself to be perfect and all-knowing. If you have done your homework, you will probably get it right, but be open and vocal about the fact that the world won’t end if it doesn’t work out. This message is also an important one where the schools you have listed are over-subscribed and you might not get your first choice. Make sure you make it known that every school on the list will be just fine and what the pros and cons are for each.

A tip for schools: If for some reason it doesn’t work out, support students and their families to move on without feeling they have failed. Children shouldn’t be made to feel they have let anyone down if they can’t make it work at your school.

Ofsted reports don’t mean a thing
Some parents only consider a school if it is rated Outstanding or Good by Ofsted. Some even spend long hours reading Ofsted reports. It can be useful to read an Ofsted report, especially the summary on where the school’s strengths are and where their areas for improvement could be. These could be things you look out for or ask questions about when you visit the school. But an Ofsted inspection is but a snapshot of a day or two in the life of a school. And that snapshot may have happened some time ago. I have visited great Outstanding schools but others where I have felt it was a tense, soulless and pressured environment and I have visited awful schools rated Requires Improvement and others that have been the most creative, aspirational, purposeful and warm places. Ofsted reports are useful as part of the picture, but mainly are unreliable as the basis for your decision.

Tips for parents: Trust your gut feeling when you visit a school. Try to get to schools that you are interested in not just for the open days and public marketing displays around choices time. Get yourself there for a Winter Fair, a school concert or other opportunity. Get to know parents of older students there. Have a look at the school website and look into the eyes of the children there.

Tips for schools: Make sure the local community has ample reason and opportunity to engage with your school. Ensure that your website is vibrant and gives an accurate reflection of the school. Talk openly about the school’s strengths and the areas that it is looking to develop

In case you are interested, these are the things that featured in my choice of secondary school in no particular order:

It can be reached easily by public transport

My partner walked in and immediately said he loved it having been previously sceptical, our child liked it and so did her younger sibling.

It is relatively small and they have a good track record with both SEND and most able children.

They are stubbornly enthusiastic about having a rich music and arts curriculum despite the squeeze on finances and time schools are experiencing for these subjects.

It felt right – I called during term-time and said I would like to visit. I went with my child and they gave us an hour and a half of their time. It was a normal school day. They didn’t have to do that. We also visited during an open day – the students were lovely and I grilled them with ‘trick questions’ like: “I bet the fact that there are more boys than girls means there’s a lot of mucking about in lessons, eh?” and “Which teachers shout the most?” They gave great answers and ones I wanted to hear.

The senior leadership team is well-liked and had been there for several years but not too many. A new headteacher takes a while to get going and one that has been there forever may leave. I was keen for at least a couple of years of stability and a strong senior team should the head move on.

The headteacher is a 6ft black woman and many of the staff members were BAME. Call me overly-political but in an inner-London school, I would like my children to be educated alongside and by the very people that they live amongst. This to me felt right.

The school talked in terms of achievements, aspirations and experiences they wanted the students to gain during their time there, but they also used words like love, passion, nurture and fun.

The school is not over-subscribed and has a reputation that is 10 years out of date, despite their best efforts to change this. I asked them outright, “why when I ask about this school, people say they don’t think it’s very good, and yet your Value Added is amazing, you have great results, a new build and a good Ofsted?”  They were honest and not at all defensive. They invited me to help change that, and I am.

 

 

 

Social media: handle with care

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my social media. I use Twitter and Linked In professionally and I keep my relatives and friends up to date with my family life through Facebook. And yes, I am starting to explore the wonders of blogging through WordPress. Twitter, in particular, has given me so much. It has opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and provided a reach I never imagined possible. There are times when it’s a bit weird – although still on the spectrum of not unpleasant – like when someone approaches me at a conference and says, “Excuse me but are you @Penny_Ten? Amazing to meet you, I’ve been following you for ages!”

But there have been times when it has got messy. Two examples stay with me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. The first is what I can now jokingly refer to as my ‘claim to fame’ of having been hounded 24 solid hours by one of our finest and most prolific Twitter edu-trolls. Among other things he called me a liar and anti-Semitic. I feel proud that I didn’t buckle under his attempts to humiliate me until he finally skulked away and blocked me. But it was traumatic and degrading. While it was happening, several of my Twitter allies were direct messaging me, encouraging me to keep to my cordial, outwardly calm stance. But my boss was far from happy the following Monday and I really wondered if the whole very public episode might somehow undermine me professionally. Teacher Toolkit writes about his own similar experience and captures well that awful sense of being emotionally violated by his attacker.

The second occasion was when a long-time LinkedIn professional contact of mine suddenly went creepy on me and started propositioning me in the most unwholesome and inappropriate of ways. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was completely out of order and disconnected from him on LinkedIn immediately. I admit that I had stereotypical assumptions about him as he was married, a practising Christian and much older than me. It took me by surprise and made me realise that you never really can tell.

So you see while it would be hypocritical of me to ban my children from enjoying the modern privileges of online life, I am keenly aware that it has real dangers for all of us. Some of these dangers are concerned with other people’s malicious intent to harm us and others are more connected with the relentless nature of being constantly available and always in communication with the outside world. It is my job to make sure that my children know how to be safe. As parents and as teachers we can’t keep children safe all the time and in every situation. What we can do is set boundaries that are age-appropriate, equip them with sound and constantly evolving understanding and hope for the best. Grim and extreme as their example is, Breck Bednar’s parents explain this all too well in the article in the Guardian this weekend. Breck was a 14 year old boy who loved gaming and who was groomed online and murdered in 2014.

When one thing leads to another

I have two daughters aged 13 and 10. Like most young people of their age group, they are pretty active online. My youngest is an avid Minecrafter often joining shared servers to play and chat with a combination of school chums – and people she has no idea who they are. She also uses WhatsApp to communicate with her friends and family. The oldest, like many 14-17 year old girls has two popular Instagram accounts. One has over 2k followers and contains pretty good street photography, the other account seems to be mainly selfies and other such stuff. She invests much time in maintaining them both. She also has Snapchat, WhatsApp and Skype. They both know the rules and understand why we have them – no pictures of you in your school uniform, no sharing your full name, details about where you live, go to school, where you hang out with people with those you don’t know personally. We found watching this short film on Thinkyouknow.com was really useful in helping all of us to get gain a basic understanding of how quickly and simply things can get complicated.

I was quite impressed with my oldest’s use of Skype. Especially since our own family experience of it was excruciating weekly meet ups with the grandparents abroad which mainly consists of various combinations of each side saying “I can’t see/hear you, can you see/hear us?” and then it usually ends up with one of us on the phone directing granny and grandpa on how to switch on the mic or the webcam. We would watch their pixelated looming faces peering into the screen or hear someone bump their head on the desk and swear as they returned from wiggling some cable or other to solve the issue. The kids would invariably slip away unimpressed using the commotion for cover. But no, my oldest daughter uses Skype to do her homework with a friend and for general chit chats.

I did become alarmed recently though when I heard her laughing and chatting away with someone new in her room late one night. When I enquired casually who it was, and she said a name I didn’t know, I asked her where she knew them from. I wasn’t expecting her to say they ‘met’ on Instagram and then one thing led to another. I felt my stomach lurch when she said that. And I saw the look of panic and then defensive defiance on her face when she realised that this was not cool. You see it’s one thing to like each other’s pictures and quite another to start messaging each other when you don’t know each other. But to give out your Skype details and to start actually talking intimately is quite another ball game. The one advantage with seeing someone on Skype though is that you can fairly accurately gauge whether they are who they say they are. Unless they are posing and grooming you to meet their older friends. It has been known. My take on it was to explain that we are all feeling our way on this, and it is better to keep the communication channels open rather than force my daughter underground and into deception and concealing her activity. We talked for a long time about why there may be dangers and how to be careful about these. But I am still jittery and know that we all need to stay alert.

Social media or anti-social media?

Earlier this week the NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless, warned of a nation of deeply unhappy children, due to “the pressure to keep up with friends and have the perfect life online … adding to the sadness that many young people feel on a daily basis”. And this is something that has also had mixed impact on us as a family. My youngest was a little isolated socially until we managed to get her a smart phone on Freecycle and suddenly she was meeting up with her classmates at weekends and chatting with them after school during the week. It was as if the floodgates were opened and her social life took off. My oldest also has a varied social life but actually getting up and going out gradually became less of a priority. Until we had a very dramatic incident which shook her out of it.

I am not sure I will be able to convey the force of the drama clearly here but it went like this: over a period of weeks, she had been on her phone what seemed like constantly. She was putting herself under pressure to build up her Instagram following, and she was chatting to school friends as well as some of her friends from our previous life abroad. Evenings and weekends would be spent getting homework quickly out of the way and then endless screen time. TV on so she could keep up with Dr Who discussions later, WhatsApp pinging, thumbs scrolling and pumping ‘like’ on photos so others would ‘like’ hers. It was relentless. And we regularly intervened, nagged and set boundaries. We gently placed her phone in a drawer overnight and switched off the Wifi at 7.30pm.

One Friday we could see yet again she had no plans to meet anyone real face to face or do anything meaningful over the weekend. The next day we tried to help her find someone to meet with, offered to spend the day out together and eventually in desperation, established a no-screens-until-evening rule – and it was hell. Our mature, reasonable, sensible girl was simply like a raging addict. By the Sunday, she wouldn’t even get up, wash, eat, establish eye contact. We did everything we could to get her to move on to something else. By Sunday night she was like an empty shell. On Monday morning she announced she was ill. I was outraged and quite alarmed and felt I had to put my foot down. I insisted she get out of bed, wash and go to school. She was morose, floppy, glazed. But I was determined that she would go and get off the blinking screens. Off she went, still protesting, but she went. Dad and the youngest left for work and school. She must have been waiting and watching nearby and saw her chance. She didn’t know that I was planning to work from home that morning before I had to go to a meeting and so when she crept back in, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw me there glaring at her. She turned and fled and for a while we had no idea where she was.

The long and the short of it is that it all came to a head, and we ended up that evening having a three hour, very intense and deep discussion about what it is to be a teenager nowadays. She was distraught, bursting forth hearty wails and gasping tears. She had reached an extremely dark and painful place. It was frightening for me to see her like that but it was important to unpack, together, how the intensity of feeling had been fuelled by this relentless online interaction and screen time. I could see how it had become mesmerizing, sucking up her energy and how she just couldn’t get herself to disconnect and to meet with some of her offline real-people friends, face to face. She challenged me about my use of social media and whether I needed to rein myself in a little too and then she came up with the idea of writing down and committing to everything we had discussed. So was born the “A Healthy Use of the Phone” contract we have hanging on our pinboard and that we are all bound to as a family.

contract

As parents, as teachers, as people who live in a digital age, we need to help each other to honour healthy use of the Internet and social media. We need to stay alert to the wonders and the potentially addictive nature of this tool. We need to do this regularly and especially when things are going well. In honour of the memory of Breck Bednar, next week I plan to sit down with my children and watch the harrowing documentary about him on BBC3 called Murder Games. I’m not looking forward to it but I feel we must.

Sources:
Think You Know is an excellent resource on safe use of the Internet for young people, parents and teachers http://thinkyouknow.co.uk/

Bad Blogging by Teacher Toolkit http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2015/11/08/bad-blogging/

Guardian newspaper article on Breck Bednar http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/breck-bednar-murder-online-grooming-gaming-lorin-lafave

Murder Games: The Life and Death of Breck Bednar http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03cgtx5

Daze Digital short piece on girl Instagrammers http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/28682/1/hit-follow-on-these-teen-photographers-taking-over-instagram

Guardian article about the online pressures of social media making children unhappy http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/07/online-pressures-unhappy-children-cyberbullying