Ten things to look forward to in the Autumn Term

What happened to those six weeks of the Summer holiday? Half way through the first INSET day of the year, you may feel they have already retreating to the distant recesses of your memory. Don’t despair, even though the long haul through the longest term of the year has just begun, and Christmas may seem a very distant horizon, there’s plenty to look forward to in the 2018 Autumn Term.

Autumn Term Top Ten

  1. Summer isn’t over! It’s still British Summer Time (until the clocks go back on 28th October) and we’ll still have a few weeks of warmer days and longer evenings, so make the most of them before the nights draw in.
  2. One of the great things about teaching is that there are two New Years: the one in January that everyone gets, and the one in September that offers a new beginning in every school. Remember when you were at school and got new exercise books? We wrote our names on the cover and opened the first new blank page full of possibilities. Your pupils will have that same feeling; how will you help them capture it and achieve great things?
  3. While most students have been enjoying summer fun, for some, the holidays will have been difficult. They might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term, the security of the school routine, maybe even just regular meals. You can make their school year a good one.
  4. Take time to connect with nature. Look out for the signs that summer is turning into autumn. Which plants are coming into bloom now, rather than in spring or summer. Which fruits are ripening, which leaves are changing colour first? Which animals do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
  5. The annual Macmillan Coffee Morning has become a firm fundraising fixture in many schools (something to do with the cake perhaps?). This year it’s on 28th September. You can sign up and get more information here: World’s Biggest Coffee Morning 2018
  6. There are plenty of other key dates, holidays and festivals during the Autumn term. Shortly after the start of term are the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana (10th September) and Yom Kippur (19th September) and the Muslim New Year (12th September). Halloween (or All Hallow’s Eve) is on 31st October, preceding the Christian Feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day (1st & 2nd November). Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights is on 7th November and this year Remembrance Sunday falls on 11th November (see below). Scotland celebrates St Andrew’s Day with a bank holiday on 30th November. The first Sunday of Advent is shortly after on 2nd December, bringing us to the lead-up to Christmas. Hanukkah begins on the 3rd and ends on the 10th December.
  7. When the nights do draw in, and the weather gets colder, what better way to celebrate than bonfires and fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night, 5th November? Gunpowder, treason and, with any luck, toffee apples.
  8. As usual we remember all those who have died in conflict on Remembrance Sunday. Many schools mark Armistice Day itself. This year, the two come together on Sunday 11th November, which marks 100 years exactly since the end of the First World War.
  9. Some of the best bits of school happen in the Autumn term and will be upon us before we know it: if I were you I’d check your Christmas jumper, and start planning the Nativity Play now.
  10. At the end of this term, the Christmas holiday and New Year!

So, what are you looking forward to this Autumn term? Are there any dates I’ve missed out? Why not share with a comment?

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

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Summertime and the living is easy?

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work.

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work. That’s because this year included a momentous change for me. After over 25 years of teaching in secondary schools, I left to work as education officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m still teaching children, but visiting different schools, rather than working in one. You can read more about this here.

This Summer, we’re working with a charity that organises holidays for children. We’ll also be running our own summer school.

Not surprisingly, there are many differences between my old job and my new one, but as I read all the end-of-term posts by teachers on social media, the long school holiday, which is no longer part of my terms and conditions, is uppermost in my mind. Not because I’m missing it, but because I’m not.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start moaning about teachers getting long holidays! That struggle to the end of term is all too resonant in my memory, together with that weird paradox whereby the number of tasks you have to complete seems to multiply exponentially as the time left to do them dwindles. I know that teachers absolutely need the Summer holiday, and so do the children they teach. What I’m wondering is why education is run in such a way that teachers need at least six weeks every summer to recover from the academic year?

From the perspective of my recent job change, I think there are three main reasons.

1. Relentless pace

This won’t be a surprise to any teacher, but the pace of work – by which I mean that there is often too much to do in the available time – inevitably means that teachers end up using their evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’ to work – planning and assessing. We do this because we want to do a good job and do the best for the children in our care, but the danger is that we end up chasing the horizon, too frazzled to be effective and on our knees by the end of term.

In my new role, I find that my team leader insists that the work we plan is sustainable. My line manager is concerned that we build in enough time for admin tasks in our schedule, that outreach visits are timed so as not to exhaust us, and that sufficient priority is given to reflective evaluation. Staff are encouraged to take a proper lunch break and we were recently reminded to set ‘out of office’ messages on email when we aren’t at work.

The result of this is that I’m s much more effective teacher, the children have a much better learning experience, and the next day (after spending quality time with my family) I have the energy to do it all over again!

2. Too few opportunities to collaborate

One consequence of that unremitting pace, is that there is too little time to hone our practice. I believe the best way to do this is through collaboration. As Robert John Meehan says:

The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.

We can spend so much time trying to stay on top of the work, that collaboration and improvement get squeezed out. Worse still, we can come to resent meetings as a distraction rather than fantastic opportunities to create better ways of working.

Each week, there is a wider team meeting and a specific project meeting. Both are opportunities for colleagues to share updates on projects, encompassing both strategic and operational elements. There have been several occasions where input from others has been significant in moving the project I work on forward, both through ideas and practical assistance. I hope that on occasion I have been able to help others.

3. Lack of control

I believe that one of the key sources of stress within the teaching profession is lack of control. Teachers are given a lot of personal authority in their classes, but often it seems that it’s everyone else and their dog telling us how and what we should be teaching! This can leave some wondering why, when they were appointed for their individual expertise and creativity, they are then treated like programmable automatons. For schools the challenge is to achieve a consistency of pupil experience without stamping out the individuality of teachers. I think the answer is supported autonomy, creating conditions where teachers can thrive. Others have written eloquently about this topic, including this recent blog post by John Tomsett on solving the recruitment & retention crisis.

in my new role I and my colleague have experienced this by being given freedom, within the objectives and budget of the project, to plan and implement outreach days. That doesn’t mean our work isn’t open to collaborative input, evaluation and constructive criticism, but it does mean that we have ownership of it.

The result of addressing these three elements, ensuring workload is manageable, that there is effective collaboration, and that team members experience supported autonomy, is that the project is proving very successful, with significantly positive pupil outcomes and excellent feedback from participating schools, and that I’m happy on my bus ride into work, looking forward to the day ahead. Even during the school holidays.

Exams: Use the motivation, lose the stress

With the 2018 summer exam season almost upon us, teachers are looking to balance ways to motivate our students to perform at their best, with awareness of how to avoid damaging stress or anxiety. Parents and carers also want their children to succeed, but may be worried by the pressure placed upon them.

This year, this can seem even more of a challenge than before. In the new norm-referenced GCSEs, there is an increased focus on terminal examinations but we do not know with any real certainty where grade boundaries will be set. Students who previously would have been able to ‘bank’ a proportion of marks from centre-assessed components, coursework, or modular exams, must now pitch all their effort into a few summer weeks. These new assessments, and uncertainty around them, are likely to add to anxiety among teachers. We need to be especially careful not to project our own worries and concerns onto our students.

Here, I have extended previous posts on exams that were based on an exercise I developed through teaching psychology, to produce this guide to maximising motivation while beating exam stress. I have also included further links to helpful information at the end.


Ten tips to beat exam stress

  1. Get organised. Make sure you know what exams you have for each subject and which topics are covered in each paper. Get to know which kind of questions to expect for each subject and paper. Make sure you know when each exam starts and where it will be. Your school should give you a list – stick a copy up at home or transfer the information to a family calendar.
  2. Manage your time. Your time is precious, so make the best use of it. Draw up a revision timetable to help you do this, breaking up your revision into manageable chunks. Many people like to plan in terms of an hour – 50 minutes of revision and a ten-minute break. Make sure you build in breaks between sessions to maintain your effectiveness. You might find it helpful to set a timer with an alarm to help you stick to your schedule. Block out any time on your calendar when you have to do other things, including some time when you can step away from revision and re-engage with friends and family (see No.8).
  3. Stay in control by sticking to your plan. Use it to review what you have already achieved and what you need to do next. It’s a good idea to spend the first few minutes of each revision session reviewing what you covered in the last one.
  4. Create the right environment. Work somewhere that is light, has enough space, and is distraction-free. Visual input from TV, screens & social media will just distract you, so it all needs to be switched off and put away while you revise. You may feel that listening to music is OK, or even helpful, but some research suggests that this can also reduce the effectiveness of revision. If finding a place to revise at home is difficult, ask your teachers about what school can do to help.
  5. Boost your confidence. Use a revision journal to record your progress. Recall things that have gone well in the past and the areas you have covered in your schedule. Make a note of things which you were unclear about but now understand. A journal is a good way to note any questions for your teacher the next time you have a lesson. You can also use it visualise your success.
  6. Eat healthily and stay hydrated. Build proper meal breaks into your schedule and time for exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk. Don’t forget to drink to stay hydrated while you revise. Avoid ‘energy’ drinks: they may give the illusion of alertness but actually impair your performance. People may say they help, but ask yourself why you never see an advert saying ‘Drink Red Bull: it helps you revise.’ It’s because it doesn’t and making such a claim in an advert would break the law.
  7. Get enough sleep; don’t stay up late revising; a tired brain does not work well, either at the time, or the next morning. ‘Energy’ drinks or tablets are not a substitute for sleep.
  8. Friends & family. Let them know you have exams and need to revise. Keep in touch during those breaks you planned into your revision, but be strict with yourself about keeping revision time for revision.
  9. Avoid life changes. Stay on course with your revision. It’s quite normal to find that things you don’t have to revise become suddenly interesting, but avoid distractions and stay on track. Now is not the time to start a new relationship or plan to run away to the circus (however tempting that may seem).
  10. Understand your body and the signals it sends you. Recognise that signs of exam nerves like ‘butterflies in the stomach’ a dry mouth, or sweaty palms are nothing to worry about. They are just symptoms telling you that your body is preparing for action. Actors sometime use a technique to tackle stage fright. They tell themselves that these feelings are of excitement, rather than fear. You might try the same for exams – they are a chance for you to perform, to show the examiner what you have learned.

Helpful Links

Many organisations provide advice on revision, preparing for exams, and tackling exam stress. Here are some of the most accessible:

  • Students can get more help and advice on student life in general, including advice on taking exams, from the Student Minds website
  • These pages from the Mind website include a handy downloadable PDF document.
  • The Teen Mental Health website has more information about the stress response, the ‘myth of evil stress’ and a range of strategies for healthy stress management.
  • Parents and carers can find advice about supporting their children through exams on this area of the NHS Choices website

I hope you found this post useful – feel free to use and adapt it as you wish. If you know of other useful resources, or have your own advice, please let me know with a comment.

Image: Wikimedia

Ten things to look forward to in the 2018 Summer Term

There’s plenty for teachers to look forward to in the 2018 Summer Term.

The Easter eggs may all be eaten, the summer holiday may seem a long way off, and the new term will bring the challenges of exams for many, but there’s also plenty to look forward to in the 2018 Summer Term.

Summer Term Top Ten

  1. For some students, the holidays will have been difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.
  2. Easter isn’t over! It isn’t just a bank holiday, it’s a whole season and the biggest festival in the Christian tradition, so you can keep on celebrating! In the Orthodox calendar, Easter Monday is on 9th April. That’s the day many schools start the Summer term, so perhaps you could save one last egg for then?
  3. Easter is traditionally a time for embracing new life and new beginnings. Why not consider our own professional practice – aspects that we might revitalise or new things we could try?
  4. We’re now well into British Summer Time, so there’s no more waking up before sunrise and coming home darkness. The days will be getting longer and (hopefully) warmer. Soaking up those rays helps lift our mood, so make some time to go outside each day.,Even on overcast days natural sunlight will do you good.
  5. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the signs that spring is turning into summer. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which animals do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
  6. You’ve got a big decision on 19th May – Royal wedding or FA Cup Final? As it’s a Saturday, we won’t be getting an additional bank holiday, so whatever you decide, make the most of the weekend.
  7. There are plenty of key dates, holidays and festivals during the Summer term. These include Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on 11th April, St. George’s Day on 23rd April, the Early May bank holiday (7th May), and Spring Bank Holiday (28th May). 20th May is both the Christian Pentecost and Jewish Shavuot. The Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan is on 15th June. In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on 17th June, and the Summer Solstice is on 21 June.
  8. You may have pupils taking exams this term, but at least you don’t have to sit them! I always hated exams and while I’m proud of my qualifications I’m also very pleased that the ticking clock and wobbly exam desk are well behind me. We all survived the process, so now we get to use our experience to help our students to succeed as well. I’ve written about tackling exam stress here. The article also contains links to useful websites.
  9. Some of the best bits of school happen in the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts, PTA barbecues, sports days, proms, end of year awards. Some schools have activities weeks, others move to their new timetables before the holiday. These and more enrich the curriculum and help build communities.
  10. At the end of this term… Summer holiday!

So, what are you looking forward to this Summer term? Are there any dates I’ve missed out? Why not share with a comment?

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

Investing in Secondary PE: good for both health and academic success

In January, I wrote a post about the clear evidence for the link between regular physical exercise and improved academic performance by children in school.

Last month, the Youth Sport Trust (YST) published the report of its survey of UK secondary schools: PE Provision in Secondary Schools 2018. The report, based on a survey of teachers in secondary schools, highlights a worrying decline in Physical Education:

  • Curriculum time for PE has declined over time, most markedly at KS4.
  • Curriculum time for PE reduces as students move from KS3 to KS4, and beyond.
  • The main reason given for the decline was that additional time was given to core subjects or EBacc subjects.

The YST report concludes that these findings confirm a continuing ‘spiralling downward trend’ in the curriculum time allocated to PE in secondary schools, and that the good work seen in primary schools was rapidly undone. Primary schools will welcome the continuation of the Primary PE and Sport Premium, but there is currently no equivalent financial incentive for secondary schools.

The report focuses on the negative impact this will have on students’ health, particularly in the light of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan which aims for an hour of physical activity a day; 30 minutes of which are in school. The average for KS4 quoted in the report equates to barely 20 minutes per day, most likely achieved in one or two sessions a week. While this is hugely important for the health of young people and the future impact of obesity on the NHS and other services, I believe that it will also be detrimental to academic performance in school. Research has shown that devoting curriculum time to physical exercise rather than having a detrimental effect on GCSE subjects, is in fact linked to improved performance by students in English, Maths and Science (Booth et al, 2014).

The YST report calls on the government and school leaders to do more to promote PE and the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. I think it’s also worth adding that we should take time to understand the research showing that what may appear to be an easy “quick fix” to meet academic performance targets is likely to be counter-productive.