An unhelpful intervention

The boy was sitting at the bottom of the staircase. He was sobbing into his hands. A crowd of teachers were doing their best to persuade him to get up.

He had run out of his lesson and come here to hide. I know him quite well. At first he ignored me in exactly the same way that he'd ignored everyone else. Finally though I persuaded him to come with me back to the department office. I assured him that no-one would be angry with him, that he could have some time to himself and then he could discuss whatever had upset him.

We walked around the corner and the Headteacher saw us. He began to scream at the boy, telling him off for wasting the time of him and his staff. Within moments, the boy was back on the floor, again in tears.

It's hard work to build trust with challenging students. It takes considerable effort and patience. It is incredibly galling when another member of staff destroys it in a moment's ignorance.

When teamwork doesn't work

I found a teacher in tears. It had nothing to do with her students.

She's a trainee and is making an impressive start in the profession. She manages behaviour well in some difficult sets and comes up with imaginative lesson ideas. So why the tears?

Two of her fellow trainees were planning lessons together and sharing resources while excluding her. The pair had also commented to her Head of Department that her lesson planning was not as organized as it should be.

Competition in any workplace is inevitable. As human beings we all like to be better than each other and every school is full of teachers desperate to begin their journey up the greasy pole.

Yet helping out and supporting your colleagues isn't optional. You are in a school to ensure students are getting an excellent education and working together with colleagues is part of making that possible. If you create an excellent resource, be excited about others wanting to use it. With so many other things to contend with, it's depressing that workmates should ever be obstacles.

The Failed Escape

It all started with a telling off.

The student had turned up late and had been informed by his form tutor that he would be have a detention that evening. He wasn't having anything of it. He stormed past her and out of the classroom door.

How he managed to get off the school premises without being seen has yet to be established. In theory it's impossible; every exit is either locked or supervised. Yet he pulled it off. One rather neat trick which is popular with some of the students is to hide at the delivery entrance and slip out behind one of the cleaners.

Panic all around. Members of senior leadership dashing around madly, desperate to establish his whereabouts. Several were ready to go and look for him.

Then he returned. Drenched. His escape plan hadn't been well thought through. He had got out and sat on a wall in the rain until, wet and cold, he returned.

Plus points for cunning. No points for long-term planning

Turn over your papers . . . NOW

I couldn't sleep the night before.

My bottom set Year 11 set were taking their English Language GCSE exam the next day. I lay there in bed worrying about what I hadn't taught them.

I was in school by 7:15 for a pre-exam breakfast. More surprisingly, a large number of my students were. The idea is to make sure they got a decent meal before the exam and to take care of any last minute concerns.

It's quite possible that none of this set will pass. They are very weak and find everything about English tough. Yet even if that does turn out to be the case, I do feel I've achieved something. These are some of the most disengaged students in the school and when I first taught them it was a battle just to get them to put pen to paper.

Now, the vast majority turn up to class and try. They get through the work. They enthusiastically ask questions. They've started to take an interest in passing. The students I started with would not have turned up at 7:15 on their exam day; several wouldn't have turned up at all. Whatever happens, this change of attitude is something I can cling onto.

We sat in my classroom waiting to go over for the hall. I'd never seen them like it, silent with anxiety. I crack a few poor jokes to lift the mood and then it's time to take them over. As I see them taking their seats in the hall, ready to do their best, I feel a little bit of pride.

The canteen: the missing part of the school food debate

My school canteen v Southern Fried Chicken. According to The Guardian, the battlelines are being drawn. Schools are going to get the freedom to offer price promotions and compete with takeaway food outlets.

Though the scale of his success may be disputed, Jamie Oliver’s campaign has ensured that school food is a political issue.

Yet there remains a major gap in this debate: the canteen itself. When students choose to hang around in the playground with a pack of crisps they are rejecting the place as much as they are the food.

Even if, as at my school, students aren’t allowed off the premises, they can bring in crisps to eat in the playground. They know that a couple of hours later they can pick something up from one of the many takeaways they pass en-route to the bus stop. The choice exists and it’s right that schools accept this.

Even those who don’t think it’s a school’s duty to feed its students well should recognise that teachers have to deal with the results of poor diets. When I see some of my students walking to school and having a “Red Bull breakfast”, it’s unsurprising that they don’t start the day in much of a mood for work.

It is no revelation that price increases put students off food. The research cited by the Guardian suggests that a “10% increase in the price of meals triggered to a drop of between 7 and 10% in the number of students eating canteen food”. I’ve seen this in my school.

I’m sure plenty of you have just read this and felt irritated that a time of cuts to key parts of education, I’m talking about nice canteens. Yet this proposal is rooted in grim pragmatism.

The scene is probably familiar to you. Lengthy queues for food. Long tables and benches. Clinical lighting and white walls. As some schools have proven, it doesn’t take much to make this slightly more pleasant.

Introduce a system of staggered queuing. Put something up on the walls. Turn on some music. Have round tables with proper chairs. I saw this in place recently at a school and was impressed by how much more convivial it made the atmosphere.

Lunchtime at many schools is the worst time of the day for behaviour. At my school, it’s the time when fighting and bullying are most prevalent. Such lunchtime chaos is consistently carried into afternoon lessons.

Creating a place where most students want to go and have lunch will help schools to control behaviour. Perhaps some of our frenetic teenagers might even discover the pleasure of sitting down and enjoying a conversation over a meal with their friends.

Originally published on Liberal Conspiracy

Welcome to the Warzone

It was a creative writing exercise.

We'd been working on how to describe a place using all of the senses. Students wrote a description then I had to guess the place.

There had been a shopping centre, a beach and a park when a particularly vivid description came up. Raucous noise, a splattering of debris and violence all around.

I guessed a warzone. The student told me it was the playground.

Even allowing for a touch of poetic licence, the description was shocking. How students perceive their school is of huge importance. If they see professional place of learning, they are more likely to decide to learn. But if they see it as a place of total chaos then bad behaviour is the natural response.

It also reminded me that, however well I and other teachers think we know a school, there's a side of it that the students only ever really see.

Why training days shouldn't be pointless

Back at school and have survived the first day of inset.

For those of you from outside the world of education, inset days are training days. No students but lots of seminars. In my experience, they are nearly always a wasted opportunity.

The fault is on both sides. Most teachers I know turn up in a negative mindset (I'm not exempting myself from this). They expect the sessions to be useless and therefore make no effort to get anything out of them. In that sense, we can be like our worst students.

Yet management also don't make things easy. Too often the sessions are vague and uninspiring.

One very good session leader once set out her criteria for a successful session; can a teacher walk away with an idea that they can use in the classroom tomorrow? Answer yes and that's a good session. Anything else is fluff.

In a school like ours that is trying hard to turn itself around, inset days should be valuable. It wouldn't take much to make them so.

A resolution of sorts

Every teacher has students who they have written off.

They've tried everything and it just isn't working. The student doesn't care and eventually neither do you. In many ways it's a self-defence mechanism; call the student unteachable and therefore he/she's failings no longer seem the teacher's responsibility.

I've been flicking through "Never Work Harder than Your Students" by Robyn Jackson. I came across a line where it mentioned that “every single student has strengths. The best teachers find them.”

Now in many ways, this is the kind of cheesy cliched line that irritates the hell out of me. I think what a lovely feel good sentiment for someone who doesn't actually work with challenging students. Slightly reluctantly, however, I'll admit that it's true.

I started thinking about my “unteachables”. There's one boy who is constantly rude and aggressive. Yet when we talk about context, he has such an interest in history. There's a girl who cannot stay in her seat. But put her in an argument and she always holds her own.

These students do need to make changes; if their behaviour continues, it will keep harming their progress. Teachers do, however, need to remember that there are strengths. Amid all the frustration, we need to do our best to use them.