Sunday 22 November 2015

A Few Thoughts On Attracting and Retaining Teachers

In the last few months, I have had many conversations about these issues with colleagues and friends.  We've all generally agreed but nothing will ever change with people just saying their thoughts in conversations.  Hence, I am sharing my views in this post.

It all started with that advert. You know. The one which says that great teachers earn up to £65,000 each year.  Twitter went into meltdown trying to locate such teachers.  Did anyone find them? Anyway, my first reaction to the advert was that I'm earning well below half of that amount so, according to the DfE, I'm clearly not 'great'.  My second reaction was one shared by a huge amount of those who I spoke to.  Why are we using money as an incentive to attract teachers?  This made me consider what attracted me to teaching, especially given that I grew up as a headteacher's daughter saying over and over again, "I'm never going to be a teacher."

During my A Levels, I got my best grades in Economics.  I loved the idea of business and was pursuing a Management and Spanish course at university.  When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time volunteering at kids' clubs, nurseries and summer camps.  While completing my UCAS application, I realised that, were I to go into a career in business, I would spend my working life in the office and my spare time volunteering to help children. I judged that if I became a teacher, I could make a positive difference to children's lives during the working day and have some time for myself.  Basically, I became a teacher for a good work/life balance; ironic really. 

Pay was never a part of my decision, nor was it a contributing factor for my friends.  Generally, teachers become teachers so they can have some sort of positive impact on their pupils' lives.  That is why we work far beyond the hours people expect of us and do unusual and uncharacteristic things (scooping fox poo from the school field anyone?!).  So does the DfE want scores of teachers entering the profession because of monetary incentives?  Surely it would have been better to use Taylor Mali's original poem about What Teachers Make.  Aren't those the sort of teachers we want in our profession?

I know that there is a massive need to recruit more teachers.  Six years ago, when I was training, the university had the prerogative to say yes or no to their applicants.  However, I recently read this article which states that, for three years running, ITT application numbers have missed government targets.  So, not only are fewer people wishing to be teachers, the universities are now under more pressure to accept people who would have previously not been successful in their applications, thus increasing the retention problem which I will come to later. 

So what is stopping people from applying to be teachers? I think the problem is three-fold: the press, OfSTED and people's personal stories.  Positive news articles about teachers are few and far between.  Strikes, cuts, league tables and workload stories are more common and are giving a less-than-attractive view of our profession.  More and more people are aware of OfSTED and their role in schools.  During my last inspection, the local pub called the school to offer lasagne for the whole staff because they knew of the pressure on that first night after the call.  OfSTED gradings appear on a variety of websites, including Rightmove and Zoopla.  Also, the pressure of OfSTED is reported time and again on websites and blogs.  It is stories about inspections, like this recent one, which target emotions and make even dedicated teachers question whether it really is all worth it.  

As is mentioned in business time and again, word of mouth is the best advert.  In order to attract new applicants, the DfE need teachers to give a positive view of their profession.  Up until recently, my optimism has meant I was able to do that.  However, I honestly don't think I could recommend teaching to many people right now.  I could only suggest teaching to the strongest, most organised and highly adaptable people I know.  I work in a "good" school with a solid, realistic leadership team and so can only imagine what those in schools with a lesser grading or weaker leaders would say.  This makes me incredibly sad for a job which I love so much and which is important to so many. 

I would need an extra few hands to count the number of people I know who have left the profession or opted to do supply instead over the last few years.  Which leads me on to retention.  Why is UK education struggling to hold onto so many of its employees?  Why are there so many headteacher jobs vacant?  Personally, I think it's the pressure from out of school which is causing massive stress to leaders, teachers and many other school workers.  OfSTED have tried over the last few years to dispel any myths and stop leaders adding to teachers' workload with documents like this.  However, all the while OfSTED exists and is making judgements about schools from the data presented to them, jobs, lives and teachers' wellbeing are suffering.  

Planning, teaching and assessing; it's a simple cycle which teachers are trained for.  It's my favourite part of the job because, in essence, it IS the job.  However, teaching nowadays involves a vast amount more than the important bits and often the peripheral jobs take the longest time and cause the most amount of stress.  I think teachers are exasperated and bored of doing useless (to them) tasks to please other adults rather than help the children in their care.  And there is no obvious panacea to put an imminent end to this.  Some of us can sit and wait for the light at the end of the tunnel, some can focus completely on the children and remember the reason we ended up in the classroom in the first place, but for others it just isn't worth even that any more so leaving the profession becomes their only option.  

This post has turned into a much longer one than I originally planned and has a more negative tone than I would like to have on this blog.  I do really love teaching...because of the kids.   However, I still have those moments when I think what I would do instead and imagine that the grass could be greener with different job title.  Always, I get to the other side of those moments and come to the same conclusion: there is nothing else I would want to do and nowhere else I'd want to be.  I just wish the DfE would make it easier for others to arrive at a similar decision.

Other education bloggers' thoughts on attracting and retaining teachers:
I'd be very interested to read your own thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

List of Primary Age-Appropriate Books

In response to my blog posts about teaching reading, I received many emails and tweets asking if I have a list of book suggestions to use in each year group.  I didn't but thought it would be a really useful resource to have.  Through Twitter, I've collected this massive list of texts (over 350) which could be used in EYFS, KS1 or KS2.  Thanks must go to everyone who filled in the form or shared it with their followers on Twitter and Facebook.  

You can read this list below or can open the PDF document into a new tab by clicking the pop-out button.  From there, you can also print or download the document to share with others.  

If, after reading the list, you feel there are key texts missing from a certain year group, you can submit any additions by filling in this form.  I will endeavour to update it from time-to-time.

Personally, I can see this list being important for planning reading lessons and finding high-quality whole-class readers for across the school.  Also, it is a good starting point for recommending appropriate books to children and parents.  Parents could use this to loosely match new books to their child's approximate reading age and ability.  

Sunday 8 November 2015

Six Things To Do Before Accepting A Teaching Job

I am writing this post because, after becoming sad and then angry reading this post entitled "How to Break a Teacher in 12 Months" (UPDATE: The blog post, which detailed someone's year in a school which forced them to leave the profession, has since been deleted.), I asked on Twitter how you can spot a school like that before you accept a job there.  One teacher has suggested there should be a survey of teachers in schools about how happy they are and that the results should be made public.  In the article, the strategy is described as a 'no-brainer' however I can see it potentially causing more trouble than good, especially if it's filled out on a bad day and, as with all cold-hard data, you really don't get to experience the stories behind the figures.

I am not in the market for a new job at the moment.  However, if I were, these would be some of the things I would do before accepting a job in a new school to ensure that I don't end up uninspired, unhappy and in a position to quit.  

1) Speak to someone who works there or a local supply teacher
You've probably heard of the theory of six degrees of separation?  It is believed that we are only six steps away from every single person on the planet.  This is especially true in the world of Education and Twitter has helped to make that world smaller.  Through Twitter and Teachmeets, I have links with many teachers and leaders in schools across the county.  Use any links to have to find out from the inside what it is like to work in the school.  My husband is a supply teacher and, from his work, he has made it very clear in which schools he would be willing to accept a class teacher job and for which leadership teams he would happily work.  He can also tell me which schools provide reasonable planning, others where teachers rarely enter the staffroom for lunch and which SLT give little support for poor behaviour.  

2) Visit the school...twice
Obviously, if you are invited for interview you will get one chance to visit the school but I would suggest you go before handing in your application form.  Teacher applications take a few hours to prepare so you need to know whether it is going to be worth your time.  Most schools offer tours so take them up on this.  

3) Look closely on the tour
Of course, look at the classroom environment and the children's faces.  You can pick up on some of the philosophies which the school holds for teaching and learning.  Keep an eye open for educational fads and fashions and ask the tour guide about the impact of these on the learning; you can see whether they are making a difference or just being done for show.  Also look closely at the teacher.  If you get the chance, have a quick chat with one or two; you can very quickly tell how they are feeling. 

4) Talk to children and parents
Again, this won't tell you a huge amount about what life is like for teachers in the school but you can gauge whether the children are happy and how behaviour is dealt with.  Children are often more honest than adults and will be happy to tell you the truth - just be prepared to hear it! 

5) Read the OfSTED report
This doesn't give you a huge amount of detail about what it's like to work there but it will give you an idea of what the school is working hard to improve.  If you accept the job, it is likely that those suggestions will take up a significant percentage of staff meeting and INSET time. 

6) Ask Questions
At the end of an interview, the panel should ask if the candidate has any questions.  This is your chance to dig below the shiny prospectus and "outstanding" banners and find out what it is like to work in the school.  Remember, teaching is a difficult job in any school however it is easier in some schools that others.  Personally, I would want to know about observation procedures, performance management reviews and professional development opportunities.  It's also important to find out a school's teaching and learning beliefs so I would ask about how classes are organised (streamed/mixed), which strategies have been introduced in the last few years that have had the biggest impact on learning and the biggest challenges which their current teachers are facing.  This sounds like a lot of questions however, as was pointed out to me on Twitter, you will want to know exactly what you are walking into, should you be offered and accept the job.  Therefore, if the school isn't willing to answer your questions or wiggles out of them with edu-jargon, then it's probably not the sort of place you want to be in the first place.  I would want to be in a place which values teachers who care about teaching, learning and wellbeing and so is willing to answer any questions. 

This is not a flawless way of choosing the perfect school in which to work however doing these six things will give you a better impression of the sort of work/life balance you will end up with and could prevent you ending up broken like the teacher in the article above.  

Sunday 1 November 2015

Preventing Extinction

There is a sound which is slowly become extinct from our spoken language and I'm on a mission to ensure it remains:

There are over four thousand words in the English language which contain the 'th' sound and some of them are among the most common words used.  However, in the last couple of years I have a noticed a deterioration in the pronunciation of it.  Often, children and adults are replacing it with a 'v', 'ff' or 'd' sound.  

Before training to teach, I spent four months in a children's centre on the outskirts of Mexico City. To bring in some money for the centre, I taught English classes to adult beginners in the evenings.  'Th' is a very unusual sound for South American Spanish speakers; they don't have any sounds which require them to push their tongue forward like that.  I always encouraged them to show their tongue to ensure they were making the right sound.  "Quiero ver tu lengua," (I want to see your tongue) became a regular phrase in the English lessons.  It was hard work for them but when they persevered they made much clearer English sounds.  Why, then, are we not encouraging native English speakers to make the real 'th' sound?

When I first started recognising this as a problem among my primary students, I found it hard to correct children because I felt like it might be an inappropriate thing to insist on.  After all, very few people speak the highest quality English and I was worried about highlighting the fact that children weren't speaking correctly.  It was when I realised this lazy form of speaking was having a negative impact on the spelling of some of my best writers that I started taking action.  

Below you can see some of the errors I've come across since September.  These are from a range of abilities and contexts. 
fin - thin
somefing - something 
ve/de - the
dere/fer - there
dat - that
phrone - throne
deaf - death
over - other

To try and tackle this and prevent the correct 'th' sound from being extinct from some children's speech, I've made it explicit in my class that every time we us a 'th' sound, it needs to be correct.  They can correct me, I can correct them and, most importantly, they can correct each other.  To help remind them, I've put this poster up on our Scribble HQ wall.  

It has quite shocked me the extent to which some children struggle to make the 'th' sound but, with the highest of expectations now, I am hoping to prevent extinction and improve the high-frequency spelling of my class.

UPDATE: I have recently added the poster below to my walls after discovering that well over half my class cannot correctly pronounce the number three.