That’ll do, chimps.

This week I heard two wonderful things on the radio that had me punching the air (to the consternation of those behind me at the traffic light) and nodding vigorously in agreement.

The first was on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Wednesday. Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, talked about her research into the traits of high achievers, her analysis of ‘grit’ and her book ‘Grit; the power of passion and perseverance.’

The conclusion of her work is that true success comes from a combination of determination, discipline and direction; a commitment to following a particular path with focus rather than dissipating efforts on disparate projects. She spoke about the need for constancy and direction; Isaac Newton kept going and returning to with certain challenges that were hard when others had got bored and abandoned them long before, for example. According to Angela, herself a former middle and high school teacher, grit can be learnt and taught and modelled.

She believes that there are four key aspects in developing grit:

  • Have a deep interest in something; find nuance in what you do, as opposed to novelty;
  • Practice something that you can get better at on a daily basis;
  • Cultivate a sense of purpose and a sense that what you are doing matters to other people;
  • Cultivate hope and learn to be an optimistic person. (She acknowledged that this is quite American!)

 

Angela went on to explain her belief that teaching can change people. In the week, children spend more of their waking hours in school than with their families on so teachers can clearly have influence; in that classroom when you close the door, you create a culture and an environment where there are the two things that encourage grit: support and challenge.

These final messages resonated hugely with the ideas that I have presented recently in training and conversations with teachers and about which I have written in my blog. True, teachers can’t do it all. We are not there to replace parents, social workers or other supports. But we can do a lot in the space that we control.

Teachers modelling grit and providing support and challenge are therefore key. Although the role of family cannot be discounted as an enormously important influence on children, there is something that we as teachers CAN do, even if it is not a complete solution.

(The full interview can be heard here: for another 20 days, at around 2 hours 23 minutes in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bzdjy)

The second programme I heard and was inspired by was this week’s Radio 4 ‘All in the Mind’.

The key messages here also chimed with much of my own thinking about the purpose of education, the pressures created by assessment in schools and the need to focus on wellbeing in schools

The programme included a discussion around tests and exams and the mental health of children which involved Lord Layard from The London School of Economics, Dr Berry Billingsley, Associate Professor of Science Education and Reading University and her colleague Tim Williams who is a clinical and educational psychologist.

Berry acknowledged that it is hard to find data about whether exams are leading to increased stress in children and young people but said that there is a clear increase in stress levels generally caused by increased pressure on them; this is evidenced by increased referrals to psychologists due to childhood stress and an increase in calls to Childline relating to the issue. Anecdotal evidence from teachers also suggests that tests and exams play a large role.

Tim Williams added that, if schools themselves become stressed as a result of exams then children will pick up on the stress of their teachers; it is important to note and study levels of stress in schools at different parts of the year.

Recent World Health Organisation statistics show that, at age 11, the UK does not fare much differently to other nations in terms of stress but that at older ages, Scotland and England were suddenly in the top 5 for pressure so that 80% of girls in Scotland say they feel pressurised by school work at the age of 15, compared with 35%v in Germany and 36% in France.

Parental pressure and a long build up towards end of year exams were seen as key factor in contributing towards this.

Lord Richard Layard who directs the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics then spoke about a project called ‘Healthy Minds’ which is working with 30 schools around London to try and get data in relation to this issue.

Hs opening statement:

“We are trying to help people learn how to live and not just how to pass exams.”

He spoke of the Healthy Minds curriculum covering the first four year of secondary school with an hour each week focusing on:

  • Understanding your emotions and managing them;
  • Understanding other people and learning how to care for them
  • Thinking about what kind of person you want to be and what kind of parent you might want to be when the time comes;
  • How to interpret mental health problems;
  • How to practice mindfulness.

The programme promotes the development of skills that enable people to focus on achieving a purposeful, positive approach to life, rather than telling them what not to do; telling them how to live fully and completely.

His message to every teacher listening –“what we know from all of these experiments is if you have programmes which help children with their mental health and their general values system, it is not a waste of time, actually they do better at exams. That hour is better spent becoming a decent person than swotting away yet more on your exams.”

Tim Williams agreed that there is too much focus on teaching for testing, rather than teaching for the future and developing as a person.

It was agreed that there needs to be some element of testing in schools but that there is too much emphasis on testing (of schools and children) at present and, as Berry Billingsley said, it overtakes children’s lives and all the other sorts of learning.

Lord Layard went on:

“We should learn, mainly, so that we can make a contribution to society which is a different motivation from learning to pass exams; we should want our children to learn for two reasons only, really; one, because it is interesting…and second because it is useful and will enable them to make a contribution to society. And we have really, by just concentrating on exams, completely misled children as to why we actually want them to be educated….”

He said that we can reverse the ‘stupid tide’ which is about everything in life about being about achieving personal success which puts a strain on individuals and is isolating.

Instead of promoting being ‘successful’, we need to teach that life is about making a contribution to others and getting some pleasure out of that.

Lord Layard feels that the pledge of the group ‘Action for happiness’ has a lot to offer children:

“I will try to lead my life so as to create as much happiness in the world as I can and as little misery.”

Berry Billingsley added that ‘success’ is difficult to define and quantify where children may have strengths in one area but weaknesses in others. She said that studies have shown that self-efficacy is key; children’s belief and confidence in their own talent is crucial in enabling them to succeed. Also, children who feel in control of their own pace and assessment and understand the assessment system do better than those who don’t.

Tim Williams concluded that schools and psychologists need to work together to tackle these issues and that school leadership has a key role to play in improving the situation in schools by recognising wider contributions beyond exam results.

And Lord Layard’s final word: emotional health has to be a specific objective our educational system.

Amen.

The full ‘All in the Mind Episode’ can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bzdjy

So, am I scouring the TES for a job in one of the Healthy Minds pilot schools? Will I spend my days dreaming about getting a secondment to the LSE and working with likeminded people (as if!)?

Actually, no. Because in Scotland we have Health and Wellbeing within Curriculum for Excellence that back up the sort of approach advocated by Healthy Minds. We want Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals. We have a framework for developing Skills for Learning Life and Work that promotes resilience, self-discipline, employability and empathy. AND WE NEED TO FIGHT FOR THESE IN THE FACE OF PROPOSED STANDARDISED TESTS AND MORE ‘RIGIOUR’. Let’s check that bathwater very carefully for a baby.

I return to school this week after my secondment, as Depute Head Pupil Support with a teaching remit. The chimps in my head are having a field day. “You can’t teach any more! You’ve been out so long you don’t have a job to go back to! You can talk the talk but you won’t be able to walk the walk!”

But I have spoken to them. I have told them that I will be meeting around 120 new pupils in my classroom this week and possibly another 200 or so in assemblies and other settings. And my mantra will be this:

I will meet them without prejudgement and fear and offer them support and challenge in a nurturing safe space. I will savour the opportunity to help them develop self-efficacy and resilience and to grow from children into successful young adults and contributors to society. And I will aim to create as much happiness and as little misery as I can.

That’ll do, chimps. That’ll do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watch your words

Those who read my blog regularly (hi, Mum) will know that I am a bit obsessed with Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I love the combination of music, inspirational anecdotes and honesty that characterise the show. Yesterday (while driving, again) I caught up with Inga Beale, the CEO of Lloyds of London and her enthusiasm, inspirational ideas and infectious passion for life and learning. She talked about her successes, her mistakes and her commitment to understanding others and promoting diversity. Yet the part of the programme which really stuck with me was that part relating to her experience of school and how the words of one particular teacher had an influence on her. In her first year of secondary school she took a French exam and came second in her class, with 96%. Her teacher spoke of this as being unfortunate and a disappointment and suggested that Inga should have come first, given that her father was a teacher and linguist. This had the consequence of making Inga feel inadequate and angry and putting her off formal education. Whilst this, in the end, did not prevent her from going on to achieve great things and very positive outcomes, the story made me reflect once again about the theme of teacher-pupil interactions and relationships. I have written here about the power of positive relationships in education but this story reminded me again about the need for the adults who work with children to consider their interactions and the impact of them. Of course, there will be those who will say that Inge should have been less sensitive and that teachers can’t be expected to watch their every word. Others may say that for another child, this criticism and harsh approach might have acted as exactly the catalyst needed to achieve first ranking in the next test. As someone who decided at the age of fourteen to try for Cambridge, I certainly had a competitive streak as a child; there is a place for competiveness in helping some people achieve their potential. But for others, the destruction of self-confidence caused by such an approach can be life-altering.

Last year I chaired a working party to create refreshed authority guidance on supporting Highly Able Pupils. As part of this, I asked the group members to reflect on how much and how they were pushed to achieve when they were younger and whether or not competition was an important factor. We discussed Matthew Syed’s ideas in his book ‘Bounce; the Myth of Talent’ and came to the conclusion that for every child who might be encouraged by the words of Inge’s French teacher there will be a another who is turned off or, worse, made to feel inadequate.

Those of us who were parents in the group also talked about the ways in which we have encouraged our own children and discussed whether NOT being a ‘pushy’ parent is doing your child a disservice.

I admitted that I sometimes wonder whether I should be harder on my daughter over piano practice; might she be on grade 5 by now if I had been harder on her or perhaps compared her to her friends who are further ahead? Will she resent me in years to come?

In all honesty, I think not. She is very conscientious and puts herself under her own pressure when it comes to school work; she always does homework without fuss. She continues with Highland Dancing years after many girls of her age have given it up. She has told me that she plays the piano as a hobby and never wants to play professionally, so why should she put herself under undue pressure?

Surely the key here, then, is about knowing our children (whether our own or those we teach) well enough to understand whether our words are likely to motivate or undermine them.

It is not an easy task and educational structures work against us; in Scotland we STILL have a system where we pay lip service to breadth of achievement but obsess with National 5s and Highers and are introducing standardised tests that threaten to compete with SATS and send us down a route of league tables and associated teacher, parent/carer and pupil stress.

Inga is another fantastic example of someone who has achieved in spite of rejecting (or actually being rejected by) formal education.

But how many children have been damaged by a misjudged comment by a teacher and gone on to a less successful future because of it?

There are some who will read this and say that they cannot be expected to cater for or pander to ‘over-sensitive’ children. I would argue that that this is exactly what they need to do; to work to understand sensitive children and meet their needs. To modify their words and behaviour so that they are inclusive and recognise diversity.

We are all human and make mistakes. But we can work round this and apologise if we get it wrong. Might things have been different for Inga if her teacher had been able to say “Sorry, what a daft thing for me to say! You should be hugely proud of 96%”?

One size fits all is easy and convenient. But ease and convenience are not what we should be about if we undertake the very important task of shaping the lives and futures of children and young people.

To quote the greatest of teachers:

“We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”

– Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Learning from my secondment

I have been out on secondment for the last fifteen months with my local authority central education team. I have been part of the Additional Support Needs Team and although my official title has been Education Support Officer, I have been allocated duties equivalent to those of an education officer.

The other day, someone asked me exactly what I have been doing while on secondment, as they are considering taking on a similar role. This made me think that it would be useful to write a post about it. I am also motivated to write about the learning that can be achieved by undertaking such a role; for me the learning opportunity has been invaluable. Obviously, every authority in Scotland will allocate duties to members of the central team differently and there is variety in role titles and remits. I am not sure whether equivalent roles even exist in England any more but my role has been akin to that of the old ‘county advisor’. (I hope my visits to schools over the last year have not instilled the same fear and trepidation as were generated by the words “the (wo)man from county is in next week…..” back in the nineties!)

 

The strapline job description for my role has been to ‘support schools in the West of the authority in matters relating to ASN, GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child) and Child Protection.’ The tasks that I have undertaken are as follows:

  • Supporting establishments to meet their responsibilities in terms of ASL Act and other relevant legislation
  • Working with establishments to identify and support young people particularly those with ASN – visits, assessments, recommendations (as part of staged intervention model)
  • Member of scrutiny group relating to deployment of ASN assistants and pupil support teachers.
  • Supporting establishments to improve learning for young people with additional support needs – including training on autism, attachment, behaviour
  • Working with other services to develop inclusive practice in education – includes sitting on Argyll and Bute Autism Strategy group and training sub-group, Parental Mental Health working group
  • Working closely with Area Principal Teachers (ASN) – operational line management, monthly case load meetings and PRD (professional review and development)
  • Working closely with Visual Impairment and Hearing Impairment teachers– operational line management and regular case load meetings
  • Organising / chairing working parties to move forward with ASN policy update – Staged Intervention, Highly Able Pupils, Looked After Children
  • Supervisory and de-brief support for education Child Protection Co-ordinators and other staff involved in Child Protection as appropriate
  • Education rep at corporate parenting group
  • Education rep on EEI (Early and Effective Intervention) screening panel
  • Education rep on IRTD (Child Protection Initial Referral Tripartite Discussion) audit group
  • Education representative on the GIRFEC implementation group
  • Supporting schools to embed GIRFEC practices and procedures – joint working and support with Area PTs
  • Education rep (West) on GIRFEC advisory group
  • Working with staff from education, psychological services, health and safety, administrative services and unions to develop practice guidance around managing challenging behaviour and related violence and aggression
  • Participating in school review processes and preparation for School Inspection as appropriate
  • Working to review process for recording and reporting in relation to ASN within SEEMIS (School and education management information systems)

 

The top ten things that I have learnt during my secondment (with a few explanatory notes below):

  1. Everyone, from the highest to the lowest grade employee in the organisation is a human being. In all our interactions we need to remember this and ensure the same quality of respectful relationship with every single person we encounter.
  2. People deserve a prompt response if they phone or email you because you are the person there to support them. Understandably they get upset if they do not get an answer.
  3. If you want people to do things and buy into change, you need to take the time to explain to them why it is a good idea. In your explanation, try to get a point where the person asks ‘why wouldn’t I do this?’ rather than ‘why would I?’
  4. Inclusion and equity are very complex issues. My personal belief is that we need a wholesale social and political re-think and that schools cannot do it all. However, as educators, we can play a huge part in influencing the attitudes and beliefs of the youngest stratum of society. But it takes a whole-school approach.
  5. Austerity and addressing the needs of children who need extra support are not comfortable bedfellows. There are efficiencies that can be achieved through careful, robust and intelligent scrutiny by those who really understand the issues. But there are also times when they cannot.
  6. Educating and changing the attitudes of those who work with children and young people are often more important than anything else.
  7. If you say you believe in transparency then you need to be transparent. There is no place for Secret Squirrel.
  8. The higher you go and the more you have to do, the more you need to be able to say “I’m not sure but I know a person who does…”
  9. When you have been out of school for too long, you may forget what schools are really like.
  10. Not everyone works in the same way. Sometimes I need to be more patient and realise that my impulsivity and tendency to challenge things that I perceive to be wrong are not always welcome or helpful.

 

I have had an amazing time and I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn from fantastic, committed and hugely experienced colleagues. I will miss them hugely. I predict that the remaining three weeks until I return to school may see me with something in my eye on at least a couple of occasions…….

 

Notes:

  1. Recently, when I was overwhelmed with workload and anxious about not being able to get back to people, a colleague offered a practical solution; if you are too busy to respond, you should set up an email response or voice message to say so and direct them to someone else who can help.
  2. I have written about inclusion here: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/included-or-not/
  3. I have written more about this here: http://staffrm.io/@lenabellina/oqwybVmNl8
  4. I have worked hard this year to encourage staff to think about not labelling children and challenging their own pre-conceptions. There is more on this here: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/sticks-and-stones/ and here: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/when-is-a-consequence-not-a-consequence-abcs-and-more/
  5. I am a great believer in having processes and systems written down so that everyone understands how things work. It is no use sharing information in meetings if the information is not also recorded for those who could not attend or come into post after the meeting has taken place. Communication, communication, communication.
  6. Margaret Heffernan’s Ted Talk has great advice on this: Heffernan, M (2015) TED talk – Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work.
  7. This is a tricky one. How do we ensure that those at the centre (and indeed those who make decisions at national level) keep in touch? We certainly need to allow for regular communication and honest and open discussion with those at the chalkface. But there is something about being in schools and working with actual children and parents in a meaningful and regular that ‘keeps it real’. Secondments are a good idea but can lead to too much turnover, lack of long term team ethos and inefficiency in terms of sustaining expertise. I have long envied Tom Bennett (TES and government behaviour consultant) for his position as part time teacher and part time consultant and often wonder if that is the way forward.
  8. There is more on this here: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/03/25/a-difficult-lesson-and-the-need-to-keep-learning/

Into Headship…or not?

The chimps in my head have been going a bit mad this week. For more on the concept of chimps, see here: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/03/13/into-headship-spring-conference-2/ Basically, they are a concept described by Amanda McMillan, Head of Glasgow Airport, to describe the internal self-critical voices which undermine, criticise and try and cause mayhem when we face challenge in our lives.

The focus of their antics and questions this week has been the question of how one ever really knows that the time is right.

A month tomorrow I am going back to school after a 16 month secondment with my local authority central education team. The decision to go back is mine and largely based on the facts that a) I miss being in a school and b) the travel and lack of routine associated within the secondment have been hard on my family. I also know that if I want to be a head teacher then school experience at senior management level will be crucial in terms of making applications. I had only been in my DHT post for a year when the secondment opportunity came up and it was not ideal timing but I was aware that such opportunities do not come up often, so I went for it.

The secondment experience has been excellent, I have learnt a tremendous amount and I hope that I have also given something back in terms of providing support to schools and the authority in relation to policy development and practice guidance around supporting pupils with additional needs.

Having made the decision to return to school, however, I can’t help feeling that perhaps the timing is not quite right and that I should have tried to secure an extra year in order to ensure that the work I have done is fully embedded and has maximum impact. The chimps are telling me that I am letting the schools down with whom I have built relationships and for whom I have been a voice on the end of the phone or a response to an email. They are telling me that I am letting down the colleagues in my team with whom I have created relationships and made things happen. And above all they are telling me that I am selling out on the cause for which I somewhat recklessly gave up my DHT post in the first place; being in a position to make a real difference to the ways in which we support and ensure the wellbeing of the most vulnerable children in our society. Worst of all, they are telling me that I have probably lost what it takes to teach and I won’t be able to cut it in the classroom any more when I go back! I am hoping, with these latter voices, that they are similar to those that every teacher gets on the Sunday night before returning to school and that, like riding a bike, I’ll be fine once I am back in the saddle!

I know that I have to out-think the voices and stay true to the decision that I have made. But in the moments when I am tired and when my resolve is low, the doubts creep in!

 

Another big party opportunity for the chimps arose when I heard this week that a peer in the first ‘Into Headship’ cohort has secured a headship. Of course, my first reaction was to be utterly delighted for said colleague who has been a fantastic depute and will be a fantastic head. The person will be moving to work in another authority but as that is the said colleague’s home authority, it is a personal win-win. So why is it that this news got my chimps cavorting around and turning cartwheels? “Now that person has done it, you should be looking!” they started. “All the good secondary headships are going to get snapped up by the bright new Into Headshippers!” they continued. “You can’t afford to hang around!” they needled…..”You’re already forty-six! So-and-so is  MUCH younger than you and the average age for first headships nowadays must be about forty…You’ll be left on the shelf!”

And so on.

Now, in reality, there are a few things that I need to remember to help silence that chatter. Firstly, my colleague has managed to secure a headship without needing to move house. For me, that is going to be an unlikely scenario and it therefore has huge implications. We made a major move nine years ago and then another just two and a half years ago; my children now need some stability for the next few years. I know that some children are not bothered by upheaval and thrive on change but, in our case, that is not so and I have to be aware of that. If we stay here until they are ready to leave home, we are talking another eight years and I will be fifty four. Maybe too old to start the headship journey? But my commitment to my family and my job as a mum are not secondary to my personal desire to lead a school or my commitment to other people’s children.

Secondly, my colleague has several years of being a depute under the belt and I don’t. I have just a year of experience and I need to take time to prove myself as a senior leader. And who knows? Maybe when I go back to school and have more time to develop as a depute, I will find that it is enough for me and that I can find ample opportunities within that role to give me the professional challenges that I think I crave.

When I signed up for ‘Into Headship’, I stated that I was ‘a fully qualified teacher whose next post will be that of a Head Teacher, likely within 2-3 years.’ And it is still my aspiration to achieve that. Were a headship to come up locally, I would certainly apply. (Cue chimps telling me that applying does not mean getting….but that would be the case anywhere). But for now, I need to shoo the fluffy guys back into their tree, focus on the here and now and curb my natural tendency towards impatience and impulsivity.

I know some people have a life plan. I have heard people talk about the steps in their career trajectory which stretches from leaving school to retirement. But I also know that life is about making choices that are sensible within the context of your own circumstances and living with them. We need a plan and yet we need flexibility to respond to the circumstances that life throws at us. As Dimmock and Walker in relation to school leadership:

“There is clearly a need for leadership to be responsive, and at the same time focused in a systematic and consistent way that sustains pressure for change over the long term. To make this possible, however, school leaders need an organizational design on which to architecture their long-term effort. The concept of organizational design offers the facility for both long-term consistency and short-term adaptability and responsiveness.”

(Clive Dimmock & Allan Walker (2004) A new approach to strategic leadership: learning‐centredness, connectivity and cultural context in school design, School Leadership & Management, 24:1, 39-56, DOI: 10.1080/1363243042000172813)

“Long-term consistency and short-term adaptability and responsiveness” seems to be a good mantra for my life just now.

Because, as my old favourite John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans” (John Lennon, Beautiful Boy).