Cut your inbox down to size: making the most of email

A link to my guest post on Schoolwell.co.uk about keeping on top of my email inbox using Do, delegate, defer, delete:

http://schoolwell.co.uk/making-the-most-of-email/

Advertisements

Teacher Holidays & Health Revisited

Could it really be that, even on summer holiday, school teachers experience more stress than educators in other roles who work through August?

Last year I wrote a post Holidays and Health, about the impact of the six-week Summer holiday on my health. I had been using a Fitbit heart rate monitor and I showed that it took the whole of the six-week holiday period for my resting heart rate to return to the level it had been before the start of the year.

Since then, a lot has changed in my professional life. Throughout the Summer I have worked as an Education Officer at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’ve written about not missing the long summer break because my new role isn’t subject to the same ridiculous pressures that teachers are often subjected to. In my post Summertime and the living is easy? I speculate that it is a combination of relentless pace, too few opportunities to collaborate, and lack of control over the education agenda, that result in teachers needing to recover from the school year, no matter how much they love teaching.

I knew I felt better this Summer, but I wondered whether there was a measurable physiological difference between this year and last. During the Summer term this year I did outreach work with KS2 & KS3 classes, visiting a range of primary and secondary schools, usually working with a class for a day. During the school Summer holiday, we did outreach work with a charity that organises holidays for children from economically disadvantaged families in cities, and we ran a week-long summer school at the museum and other university facilities. I only took the last week in August as holiday. In addition to my Museum role, I also started teaching part time at a secondary school close to my home. How did this compare with 2017?

As this graph shows there was a real difference:

My resting heart rate was much more stable this year, and was lower over the period I worked over the summer than it had been when I was on holiday from school last year. It very much looks like I was under less stress working through this summer, than I was by being on holiday from school last summer!

I appreciate that in the general scheme of things one measure on one individual is hardly going to be statistically significant, but when the individual is me, I hope nobody will argue with me feeling it’s important. I do think this is food for thought for all of us in education. Could it really be that even on holiday in the summer, a school teacher experiences more effects of stress than an educator in another role who works through the holiday? If that is the case, something is wrong.

I think this also show us that we need to keep an eye on our health. I’ve found the NHS Five Ways to Wellbeing a useful way to do this. The five strands are shown in this image from Wales NHS.

I have particularly enjoyed Martyn Reah’s work to encourage us all (in a profession which puts others first) to look after ourselves through #teacher5aday. With so many of us now wearing fitness trackers, these could be another way that we can not only monitor the ‘Be Active’ element, but also gain an insight general health and wellbeing.

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.

Dear Santa… I’m writing again for Christmas 2017.

Dear Santa,

You may recall that I wrote to you last year with my wish list of educational gifts. I’m writing again this year with an update, even though some of my year 10 class tell me you don’t exist (don’t worry’ they’ll grow out of it).

You’ll notice that many of the things I asked for last year are still on my list. I’m not saying it’s your fault I didn’t get them last year and perhaps you think I wasn’t fully appreciative of the fidget spinners you left instead, but if you could see your way to one or two of these it would be really helpful.

A 25th Hour. I know you must be able to manipulate time, how else do you deliver all those presents in one night? All I’m asking is for 60 more minutes each day to help me fit it all in. I’ve tried to get the better of email, I’ve tried to plan for tomorrow, to plan for peak times, and do workload impact assessments, but it’s no good: there just aren’t enough hours in the day!

Invisible goal posts. Many children respond well to sporting analogies and I’d like a way to help explain how the new GCSE grades work. We could play a match where we know that there are goalposts, but aren’t allowed to know exactly where they are. Players can take shots at the end of the field and then, after the final whistle has blown, we can reveal where the goalposts were (adjusting them to allow only a few player’s attempts to count) and only then reveal the final score. If that isn’t possible, may I have the game I hear some schools are playing called ‘invent the goalposts’ where they just make them up. They’re not real, but they offer the illusion of comfort. Failing that, how about a unicorn?

A new Progress 8 coefficient. Yes, I know I get a brand new one each year, but it just doesn’t seem to be working properly. What I’d really like is a progress measure that measures progress and doesn’t get caught up in whether a school has got enough pupils doing particular qualifications.

A basket. Last year I asked for a bucket, but since then baskets seem to be the in thing, and it seems that in English schools nowadays, everyone has to have their baskets (or buckets) full. The trouble is, I can’t seem to find one I want. It’s called the ‘Really useful qualifications that help individual students fulfil their career aspirations, progress in life and become productive, responsible citizens within an egalitarian compassionate society‘ basket of qualifications. If you could help with my search for this, that would be fantastic.

An understanding of the delegated SEND budget. Sorry, but I still don’t get this. I have tried to understand how this funding works, but however hard I think about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. The bible was of some help: Jesus apparently fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes. This seems to equate closely to the funding model, but even in this example there is no explanation of what to do when more people turn up, undergo a lengthy assessment process, have their needs identified in an EHCP, and then the school receives additional funding of… well, nothing.

A self-help guide to being a better teacher. I really need this because there just isn’t anyone who has advice on this. Literally whole minutes can go by with complete silence from the DFE, Ofsted, Ofqual, external advisors, politicians of every hue, think tanks, pressure groups, parents, pundits in the media, taxi drivers, and the lady behind me in the queue in Sainsbury’s telling me how to do my job better.

A ticket to Shanghai. I’ve been hearing a lot about how well pupils do in Shanghai, particularly in maths, so I’d like to take a trip there. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring back some useful things: some resources and teaching methods yes, but also generous non contact time, a millennia-old appreciation of the value of learning, consistently high parental engagement, and an ingrained universal cultural respect for the status of teachers, which also make up the full package.

Mousetrap. You know, the board game with lots of plastic bits that my Mum said would only get lost. This maybe doesn’t have much to do with education, but I put it on my Christmas list each Year through the 1970s. Thought I’d give it another go.

Thanks Santa, I’ll leave a mince pie, a nip of single malt, and a carrot for Rudolf by the fireplace as usual.

Merry Christmas,

Rodger

What’s on your list to Santa?

Picture credit: www.freepik.com

Top of the agenda

A while ago I wrote a post, inspired by one by Stephen Tierney, about focussing daily on the things that really make a difference in school: Down to brass tacks.

That was about the day-to-day interactions that make the most difference. In this post I’m considering strategic priorities for school improvement. One of the features of working at a school which is in Special Measures is how many people come to visit us. Each one has some advice on defining our priorities. The trouble is that each one believes that their area of interest is the most important.

“Safeguarding definitely has to be at the top of your agenda. It’s absolutely imperative that children should be safe and feel safe.” No argument there.

“It’s the basics really. Literacy & numeracy; English & maths. They are the foundation of the whole curriculum. It’s crucially important that they are at the top of your agenda.” Well, quite.

“You’re a Catholic school. It’s obvious that Catholic Life should be at the very top of every agenda. After all, it’s what defines this school as distinctive.” Amen to that.

“You need to ensure that the Pupil Premium is your key priority. Look at your data. You have a high proportion of disadvantaged students: closing the gap is the key to school improvement.” The numbers are irrefutable.

“Attendance has got to be your top priority; if children aren’t in school, they aren’t learning.” Absolutely, that’s a given.

And so on. Each of these, say our visitors, must be at the top of our agenda. The trouble is, they’re not wrong. All of these factors are important to the success of students and to our journey of school improvement, but how can they all be at the top of the list? 

The fact is, we have to keep all those plates spinning at the same time, and support colleagues who are keeping their own plates spinning. The real issue isn’t so much what to put at the top of the agenda but how to coordinate a coherent approach to developing all these interlinked aspects of an effective school. In my opinion, this involves two parallel elements:

  1. refining the most important aspects of each area so that, at any point, our efforts are focussed on a few things that make the most difference.
  2. Planning across the areas of focus so that the thinking and actions of staff members are directed efficiently, so that actions in one area support those in others.

An example of this approach is our school Pupil Premium strategy for 2017-18. In a departure from the previous format, 28 separate strands have been reduced to six areas:

  • language and communication skills in Early Years & KS1; 
  • behaviour for learning; 
  • attendance; 
  • literacy, with a focus on KS3; 
  • numeracy, especially with respect to being prepared for the new KS4 curriculum; and 
  • lack of home access to resources, study support and cultural experiences.

The previous structure was unwieldy, difficult to coordinate and hard to monitor and evaluate effectively. The consolidation into just six strands (with behaviour and attendance as priorities in both primary and secondary phases) allows us to concentrate our work on those areas which we have identified as the greatest inhibitors to the progress of disadvantaged students.

Each of these areas also interlinks with other school improvement priorities, so that initiatives will work more efficiently, complementing each other and maximising the effective use of time an resources. For example, the focus on literacy in the Pupil Premium strategy sits within our values, is based on evidence-based evaluation, builds on previous whole school work, draws on expertise from the primary phase, and utilises resources developed within our inclusion department.

The next step I’m working on is to build in the milestones for each area to create a monitoring, evaluating and reporting map across the school year. This will enable better tracking of our progress, and better reporting SLT, governors, and all our visitors. I hope that this revised approach will help us keep all the plates spinning at once by integrating our different priorities. 

As always, constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome. Click the links to read my other posts about Pupil Premium and Reducing Workload.

What I won’t be doing this holiday.

Inspired by Amjad Ali’s post I will not be doing… . here are some things I won’t be doing in the half-term break.

  1. Wearing a watch. Just for a week, time isn’t the boss of me.
  2. Hearing the phrase ‘roger, Rodger’ over a walkie-talkie (I sometimes think of changing my surname to ‘Over’).
  3. Missing lunch. That may add a bit to my waistline, but I can’t believe that the ‘run off my feet: no time to eat’ diet is actually good for me.
  4. Wearing grooves in the A418 driving back and forth to Oxford. I barely have to steer anymore.
  5. Wearing a lanyard telling people who I am.
  6. Shaving. I know, I’m such a slob. But my face enjoys the rest.
  7. Wearing a natty fluorescent tabard  between 11.10am and 11.35am.
  8. Doing anything strategic.
  9. Responding to bells.
  10. Wasting my Netflix subscription. On which note…bye!

    Holidays and Health

    Image: pixabay

    I have written a number of posts about things teachers can do to stay well in the face of the demands of the job (which you can find in these posts about wellbeing), but I haven’t previously considered school holidays. 

    Are school holidays good for our health?OK, that might seem like a daft question! Like most teachers, I believe that school holidays are good for my health. Much as I love teaching, they are a chance to relax, recharge and spend time with friends and family. That’s got to be good for me.

    This year, thanks to a Christmas present of an fitness tracker, I have been able to look at some quantitative evidence to back up my subjective feeling.  One of the things it measures is resting heart rate. Generally, the lower our resting heart rate the better (although clearly zero isn’t something to aim for). I have quite a slow heart beat. I’d like to claim that this is because of a rigorous athletic regime, but it is in fact something I’ve been fortunate to inherit.

    “It seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to recover.”

    This graph shows my average resting heart rate from the start of 2017 to the last week of the school Summer holiday.

    As you can see, we weren’t long into the spring term before my resting heart rate rose, and it stayed high for the rest of the academic year. What interests me though is that it seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to come down to the point it was at the start of the year. I did try to get all the school work I needed to do completed in the first two weeks of the holiday, but the recovery seems to start pretty much from the end of term. 

    The graph also seems to indicate dips in testing heart rate for half term breaks in spring and Summer, and for the Easter holiday at the start of April, but it doesn’t recover to the original 52bpm it was in January. My heart, it seems, needs those six weeks!

    I appreciate that a study of one person doesn’t mean much in the wider scheme of things, but doctors agree that it is worth each of us keeping an eye on our resting heart rate. This is because several studies, including this one by Nauman et al (2011) of over 29,000 participants, show that increases over time are a significant risk indicator for coronary heart disease. It occurs to me that many teachers now wear fitness trackers (if my own school is any indication) and it would be possible to collate data from these devices. You don’t need one of course: you can measure your resting heart rate by taking your pulse at the same time each day, ideally just before you get up in the morning.

    Heart rate and Ofsted? Just for a bit of fun, see if you can tell when Ofsted were in, just by looking at the graph. If you give me your guess as a comment below, I’ll tell you if you’re right!