Ten ways you know it’s the start of term.

Feeling a bit disoriented after that lovely holiday? Here’s my top ten list of things that tell you the new term has started!

  1. You breathe out a sigh of relief that the waistband of your work clothes still fits – and a button pops off.
  2. When you finally find your lanyard again you realise that the age gap between your staff ID photo and reality has widened yet further.
  3. As a result of the ‘holiday IT update’ your computer crashes when you try to log in.
  4. There are now 247 emails in your inbox.
  5. Some one asks’Sir?’ / ‘Miss?’ And for a moment you wonder who they’re talking to.
  6. The bells, the bells! Your life becomes Pavlovian again.
  7. At least a dozen new educational acronyms (NEAs) seem to have been invented since the end of last term.
  8. You scald yourself with your coffee, not having time to let it cool down.
  9. You spend more time with your legs crossed as you can no longer just pop to the loo when you need to.
  10. After your busy day, you realise that you have to get up at THAT TIME again tomorrow…

So, how many did you score out of ten at the start of this term? Remember, though, what you do makes a real difference and at least there’s no time to be bored!

Anything I missed? What would you put in the top ten?

Engaging with parents: making time for what makes a difference

In recent months I’ve been thinking about what really makes a difference at school. Inspired by a post by @leadinglearner, I wrote this post In January on ‘brass tacks’. At the same time I have also been trying to improve my organisation and time management. My recent posts on this include getting to grips with email and achieving a better work-life balance. 

One of my ‘brass tacks’ was about parental engagement. I believe that supportive and engaged parents and carers are key to children being successful and happy. Through tracking the goals that I had completed each day and those which were unresolved (originally as part of a technique to detach from work at the end of the day), I came to realise that the thing most likely to derail my carefully scheduled plans was an interaction with a parent. The meeting about a behaviour issue that overruns, the referral from a Head of Year, or the unexpected phone call or email that reveals an important issue, can all suddenly take precedence. This is, of course quite right, but it got me thinking why I wasn’t building more interaction with parents and carers into my schedule in the first place?

I took a look at my calendar and decided Thursdays would be a good day. We already calendar most parents’ afternoons / evenings on a Thursday. It’s also the day for Governors’ meetings so when there isn’t one the time already feels like a bit of a gift. For me it’s a good day too because I’m not teaching first or last thing and have no regular morning meetings. This means I am likely to be free at the times most parents are too – before and after the school day.

So, I have reserved these times (but clearly not just these times) for parents. Where I can, I am arranging meetings then. So far I’ve scheduled discussions about attendance, a behaviour concern, and a matter referred to be by a colleague. When I’m not doing this, I use the time to contact parents about their children’s achievements, either by phone or email. I use this as an extension to ‘Feelgood Friday’ when each week we encourage each teacher to make at least one positive call home. I contact parents about things I’ve seen that have impressed me. This is also something I can include in our school ‘pupil premium first approach. I edit the newsletter which goes out on a Friday, so I can also alert parents to look out for it when their child gets a mention. For example, this week I called home with news of students who had produced impressive ‘six word stories’ in tutor time for World Book Day. Sometimes these calls lead to wider conversations. It’s good to have a talk with a parent when the initial cause hasn’t been something that has gone wrong.

I have recently read Sir Tim Brighouse’s ‘Five time expenditures’*, the first being ‘sit on the wall, not on the fence’ – heads who make sure they are around at the start and end of the school day to be available to parents. Far fewer parents come into our secondary phase regularly, compared with the primary, but I think I might just try being around in reception at the start of the day when I can.

Comments are always welcome and I’d value any suggestions for working with parents & carers, particularly those who find it more difficult to engage with us.

*In How Successful Head Teachers Survive and Thrive by Professor Tim Brighouse, RM  Education, 2007.

Let it Go – Achieving a better work-life balance.

I wrote my original post about using Brandon Smit’s self-regulatory technique to improve work-life balance in January 2016. I then updated it at with some reflections after trying it out for a couple of months. In short, I’d really recommend giving it a go.

Last year I wrote a post, Getting the Better of Email, about my attempt to deal with email more efficiently (it’s going quite well, thanks for asking). In that post I also mentioned planning my day in 15 minute chunks so that when the unexpected occurs, it only derails what I had planned for a few of these chunks.
The problem is, what to do with the work that gets derailed? I have to reschedule it and sometimes that will have to be for another day. I often find however that it’s thoughts about this planned-but-unfinished work that intrude into my downtime or prevent me from getting to sleep.

I recently came across this research paper by Brandon W. Smit,  reported in the British Psychology Society Research Digest here that looks at the effectiveness of a simple technique for dealing with this type of difficulty in ‘detaching’ from work.

Smit asked workers to create plans of where, when and how to resolve goals they had not yet completed at work. Adapting this for teachers this could be:

“I’ll go into work tomorrow and after morning staff briefing I’ll collate the data I need so that I can complete the CPD evaluation requested for the Governors’ meeting.”

He found that for a subset of his participants, those high in job involvement (sounds like teachers to me), this simple planning technique increased their ability to detach from work when at home to a statistically significant extent.

Putting this together with my previous post, I’m going to start the New Year by using the following elements to try and make a clearer work-life boundary:

  • Segment work tasks into 15-minute blocks, or multiples of them.
  • Define clear goals for each of these work blocks.
  • At the end of the day take stock of the goals I have successfully met and any that remain incomplete.
  • Use Smit’s suggested planning technique to decide when, where and how I’ll deal with unresolved goals.

February 2016 Update

I’ve been using this idea for about six weeks now and it really does seem to make a difference. Ending my working day by reviewing what I have achieved and writing a single-sentence plan on how I’ll deal with incomplete tasks or unresolved issues does seem to allow me to detach more from work so family time can be family time. I’m also sleeping better – I no longer lie awake thinking about work issues and the number of times I wake up in the night with work thoughts has reduced to only two occasions in the six week period. It’s also helped me be better organised and more able to prioritise.

The technique doesn’t, of course, reduce the workload, so it hasn’t stopped the fatigue that comes at the end of a hard day! Nevertheless, I’ve found that using this simple exercise each day has made a real improvement in my work-life balance.

As ever, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you decide to give this a go, it would be good to hear how it works out for you.

Getting the better of email

I posted this originally at the start of November 2015 and then updated the post at the end of the month with some thoughts on how the strategy was working – see the end of the piece.

I recently read this article by Kevin Kruse writing in Forbes magazine on dealing with email: How millionaires manage their email. Now, I chose to be a teacher, so obviously I don’t have any interest in becoming a millionaire, and I’m not a subscriber to Forbes (thanks to Maryanne Baumgarten, @mabaumgarten, for tweeting the article). Nevertheless, I get a mountain of email each day and I’ve been trying to find a way of dealing with it more effectively. This seemed as good a place as any to start.

The author had reviewed the email habits of business millionaires and concluded that there were five basic rules to using it productively.

  1. Unsubscribe from newsletters.
  2. Turn off all notifications.
  3. Think twice before forwarding or copying others in.
  4. Keep emails short.
  5. Process email in three 20-minute periods a day using the ‘four Ds’: delete, delegate, do, defer.

So, after the half-term holiday, I thought I would give it a go. Here’s how I’m doing after a week:

1. Unsubscribe from newsletters. Not sure about this – I like having information pushed to me rather than having to search for it. I find some newsletters invaluable, such as the weekly ‘schools news’ from the LA. On the other hand I do find I delete or archive some others after a glance because the content replicates what I’ve seen before, so I need to be more selective. Some ‘newsletters’, though are just disguised adverts – out they go!

2. Turn of all notifications. Yes yes! Still there’s that temptation – what if I miss something? I’ve decided I’m more likely to miss something important by being distracted by email than by having to look each time my inbox pings.

3. Think twice about forwarding and copying others in. “Sorry for the mass email”. It may be worse saying you know you’re copying in 200 people who don’t need to know, then still doing it, than just doing it! Mail groups save the sender a bit of time but most systems are now predictive and it doesn’t take long to put the few names I actually want. When copying in, I am trying to be more discerning, finding the balance between who needs to be in the loop and reducing the email load I create for others.

4. Keep emails short. I found myself writing an email this week and as it got longer, thinking ‘I should write this as an attachment’. If it’s a document others need to consider, I realise it’s easier for all of it’s an attachment. What I find harder is the balance between brevity and courtesy. I like to put a proper salutation. If I haven’t been in touch with someone for a while, I’ll enquire how they are. I’ll then add the main content and sign off with, for example, ‘best wishes’. When I receive emails that don’t include these courtesies, I can feel a bit miffed. But of course, that won’t be the sender’s intention: they are a busy person and the shorter email is just more efficient. If it’s an answer to something I’ve asked, then I’ve got what I wanted. The balance I try to strike is include the courtesies first, but then subsequent emails in a thread can just follow on without salutations, etc, as in a conversation. One caveat: there’s a special place in hell for people who abbreviate ‘best wishes’ to ‘bests’.

Process emails in 20 minute periods. This one is fun! I’m trying to do it in three 15-minute blocks each day because my colleague @nickjohnrose has been encouraging me to use a time management system of dividing the day into 15 minute segments (this is a variation of the ‘Pomodoro Technique‘ invented by Framcesco Cirillo).  I enjoy dispensing with a full inbox in this time and the ‘four Ds’ seem to be working quite well. The problem is that when I need to write an email to someone, I find myself checking what’s in my inbox – too easy to get caught up! I have also found myself checking my email in an almost involuntary way – I may have an addiction that will prove harder to shake.

One issue is the expectations of colleagues. Up to know I have given the impression that I may respond at various times across the day and am frequently checking mail. They therefore send me messages with this assumption. I haven’t formally declared what I’m trying to do, and why, but perhaps it’s only fair that I do.
November 2015 Update

I’ve given it another couple of weeks and despite a few days when my email discipline fell apart, the new approach seems to be making a real positive difference. I did share with colleagues what I was doing and it was received well, with several giving encouragement and support. Consequently, I find I can usually deal with daily email in three sessions, freeing up time for other work. I think it has also made me procrastinate less – I don’t put things off (well, less than I did) but deal with them there and then, or decide it’s not a priority.

So, I’d  recommend giving this a try if you’re finding that email is occupying too much of your life. As ever comments are always welcome. I’d also be interested to hear how you deal with email.

Don’t Call It Appraisal – Building Better Performance Development

No, we don’t call it appraisal, and we try not to use ‘performance management’ either. One  of my responsibilities at school is to organise the annual performance reviews for teaching staff. We take he view that the primary purpose of this exercise should be developmental – we aren’t just measuring how well teachers do their job but learning what works best and using objectives to develop our practice as teachers in order to secure better outcomes for children. We also use reviews as a great opportunity to say thank you to colleagues for their hard work and commitment over the past year.

This year I have given a lot of thought to how we can better align school priorities and the requirement to base performance reviews on the Teaching Standards with the objectives for each colleague. We have linked objectives to the standards since 2012 (using a facility within the School Aspect online management package we use), but for 2015-16 we have chosen to link a couple of objectives, which align with school priorities directly to teaching standards. 

We have three objectives for all teachers and a fourth for those with a TLR post or on the Leadership Team.

A. Promote good Progress and Outcomes by Pupils. An objective focussed on elements of this teaching standard and linked to the levels of progress of pupils in a group, the size and nature of which depends on the role of the teacher.

B. Teaching to Meet the Needs of Pupils. An objective focussed on elements of this objective and designed to improve the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils is a school priority. This objective is to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils (i.e. Those who receive the pupil premium) and their non- disadvantaged peers. Again, the size of the group depends on the responsibilities of the teacher.

C. A personalised CPD objective derived from the teachers self review against the teaching standards and reflection on the past school year. This may derive from the review of objectives from the previous year or from an NQT final assessment. In some cases the development area may be proposed by the reviewer.

D. A leadership objective centred on an area of responsibility dependent on the teacher’s role. St Gregory’s is a faith school and this objective aligns to one of four areas:

  • Spiritual Capital
  • Mission Integrity
  • Partnership
  • Servant Leadership

For each of these objectives we record the key actions, intended outcomes and timescale. We also agree the success criteria and evidence that will form the basis of the review. CPD requirements for fulfilling objectives are also recorded. There is an interim meeting part way through the year to check progress.

That is what we are planning for this year. I’m interested in how this compares with what other schools do and welcome any constructive comments.

Workable Wellbeing

Inspired by the @SLTchat discussion about wellbeing on 6/9/15, I have collated some of the easily implementable ideas we use to promote wellbeing at St Gregory the Great Catholic School in Oxford.

Some updates added on 10th October 2015 to mark World Mental Health Day.

1. Free tea & coffee in our staff room. This is essential really, I feel it makes breaks a proper break and its the fuel that keeps staff going in between! I’ve worked in schools where staff pay into a kitty for tea & coffee – it’s a lot of effort for a very small sum in terms of a school budget and usually a nightmare for the colleague who has to get everyone to cough up. Chocolate biscuits also help at high pressure times and several colleagues share cake on their birthdays.

2. Considering the impact of new policies on staff wellbeing. Change seems to be the one contestant in schools. As we plan and implement new policies and procedures it’s important to consider their impact on workload and wellbeing. I have described this in more detail here.

3. Thank yous. It only takes a moment to say thank you, but in a busy day doing so can easily slip, whether acknowledging an email response, on paper or in person. It’s well worth getting into the habit of thanking people in even the routine tasks like a request for photocopying to reprographics. Use key points in the year such as the end of terms to voice appreciation or drop people a note. Performance management reviews are also an opportunity to thank colleagues for their contribution over the past year. At our Performance Development (we don’t call it appraisal) day this year we picked up on idea from Cheney school, Oxford, and started a staff Thank You board where anyone can post thank yous to colleagues.

4. Active steps to make workload manageable. We try to plan for busy times of the year, for example reducing the requirement to attend meetings in the weeks before exam board submission dates. I’ve written more about this here.

5. Staff book swap. We maintain simple book swap in the staff room. Colleagues contribute books they have read and enjoyed and anyone can take them to read themselves. There is only one condition: if you enjoy the book you have to pass it on to someone else you think will like it. We started with about 30 books donated by colleagues a couple of years ago. Since then the book swap has grown and become completely self-sustaining.

6. Mindfulness. We are just starting out with mindfulness as a school after training at the start of the year. We are aiming to use it with pupils, especially to reduce anxiety, but many friends and colleagues have found it extremely useful, so we are also keen to explore the benefits for staff wellbeing.

7. Spirituality. I work at a Catholic school so prayer and worship form part of school life. Our chapel is an oasis of peace and staff are welcome to take part in a short Taize service each week. It’s open most of the time to drop in. Most schools, whatever their character, have staff faith groups. While maybe not what everyone wants, they can be a boon to the wellbeing of their members.

8. Humour. A smile, a laugh, a cartoon or a joke, even if it is a bit lame, can lighten the day sometimes even the workload. It’s important to get the balance right, and to make sure the humour isn’t personal, but used well humour can make a large contribution to wellbeing. We try to have something that will make people smile at staff briefing, in our newsletter, and in the end-of-week email. My colleagues seem to have quite taken to the idea of dressing up 1980s style to mark ‘Back to the Future Day’ on 21st October. People are sending me pictures of their hair crimpers.

9. Cake. Yes cake. It seems to feature quite a bit. It precedes CPD, accompanies meetings and is occasional treat at break time. I noticed a thread in the #SLTchat discussion about the benefits of fruit. I can see the health and nutrition arguments, but I think if we tried to replace cake we might have a mass walkout. As a compromise we sometimes put fruit in the cake. Cocoa beans are a fruit, right?

10. Staying Fresh. Ideas that I was struck by in the @SLTchat included sending cards to team members that arrive home over the summer (from @MrBenWard), ‘Have a break, have a kit kat’ for staff returning after illness (from @TeacherToolkit) and specific coaching for managing time & wellbeing (from @ottleyoconnor). For myself, I’m going to try to make time for lunch as @gazneedle suggested) – something I’m not too good at most weeks.

It would be great to here other suggestions that have worked for you. Thanks to @ASTsupportAAli from Cheney School for the Thank you board idea. @evenbetterif has suggested a wellbeing objective in everyone’s performance development – an idea we will consider for next year.

Workload Planning for Peak Times

This is the second in a planned series of posts on tackling workload issues in schools, so teachers can focus on the most effective activities. Originally posted in February 2015, this post was updated in April 2015, and again in April 2016.


Planning for the Pressure Points 

One important way in which school leaders can reduce the workload of teaching staff is to recognise the times of the year when there are particularly high demands. One of these for UK secondary schools is the period in late Spring when we embark on the ‘final push’ and at the same time face the marking & moderation of coursework components. We have adopted a couple of strategies to help staff during this time.

1. Meetings Moratorium For several years we have held a moratorium on meetings for the two weeks after The Easter holiday, suspending the school meeting cycle (subject / pastoral / CPD) to assist colleagues in dealing with this seasonal workload. We also devolve a twilight INSET slot to subject teams in this period so they can share practice, honing and standardising their assessment skills.
2. SLT take on the Homework In 2014, we took the additional step of relieving colleagues of the requirement to set and mark KS3 homework. Instead the SLT set and marked a ‘TakeAway Homework’ menu (Thank you to @TeacherToolkit for that idea*) We used this as a student voice opportunity, so menu items included completing an online survey, writing to the head about an improvement to the school, and writing to me about what qualities a great teacher should have (I need all the help I can get!) We used the responses to inform the School improvement plan.

None of this makes the work go away, of course, but it does allow colleagues to concentrate on key tasks, by relieving some of the pressure on them at this time of year. Teachers have cited it as a helpful strategy in the annual staff wellbeing survey.  

April 2015 Update

This year we are repeating the moratorium on meetings, but have modified the take away homework for KS3 students. We have been revisiting our school values this year, so we have included a ‘starter’ on random acts of kindness and a ‘main course’ item which is a competition to design a poster around our school values of wisdom, integrity, justice and compassion. We are also having a push on extended writing, so another ‘main course’ is a writing competition. The inclusion of competition entries also reduces the marking load because the entries are initially screened for shortlisting rather than close-marked. We have of course retained the item most popular with parents last year – the ‘dessert’ on helping out at home!

April 2016 Update

This strategy was welcomed by colleagues last year, so we are repeated it again this year.

We used the same pattern of a meetings moratorium and devolved some INSET time to subject departments so they could use it when most appropriate to their planning. 

We also repeated the centralised takeaway homework for KS3 students. You can find it here. We stuck with extended writing opportunities. This was a great success last year and several pupils produced prize-winning entries in National writing competitions. Building on this, we have deliberately written poetry, short story writing and art tasks to meet entry requirements for competitions. We will also be comparing writing this year with that from last year as a way of assessing progress on this priority in our SIP.

We shifted the focus of our ‘values’ tasks to practical action to improve the school environment as our (Catholic school) community explores the message of Pope Francis’ letter Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home. We’ll also be using this as a student voice opportunity, comparing answers with last year and also asking about our teaching and learning development areas for this year (feedback and DIRT, and Collaborative Learning).

Impact

Once again, adopting this strategy has helped alleviate the workload burden of colleagues at a ‘heavy’ time of year, and in a year when there is so much additional change in all areas. Even though Easter was much earlier this year, the two week period after the holiday still seems to have been the most beneficial time to do this.

I hope you found this post useful. I’m keen to hear any comments you have and I’d particularly like to hear other ideas on managing and reducing workload. 

*You can find more about takeaway homework on the Teacher Toolkit website
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Workload – a small step in the right direction

Inspired by #SLTchat
The #SLTchat discussion on workload on 7th December inspired me to think of ways to embed principles on limiting workload into practice. If you haven’t yet taken part, SLTchat is an excellent Twitter school leadership discussion forum each Sunday 8.00pm – 8.30pm (UK time). Do give it a go – you’ll pick up a wealth of ideas!

Among many others that evening, I had commented that teachers’ work should be directed towards things that make the greatest impact. If we adopt a new working practice it should replace something less effective, not merely add to the existing workload. I had also commented that the current problem was that teachers were having to plan new GCSE and A level courses while teaching current ones, and implement a new curriculum and assessment models while coping with the legacy of the old ones. This is because an externally-imposed timetable places speed of introduction over long-term effectiveness.

Nevertheless, while we may have limited ability to influence what is imposed externally, school leaders can still do our best to ensure our colleagues can devote their time and energy towards the things that make the greatest difference for pupils. One practical change I have initiated recently at St Gregory’s is to include a workload impact analysis in each policy change or new initiative.

Workload Impact
An example is shown below. As part of a programme to improve student behaviour and reduce fixed term exclusions, we want to improve communication of learning contracts agreed with students and their parents. This is a modification of an existing procedure, rather than wholesale change, but there are still workload implications:

Workload Implication Analysis

Positive:
– Clarification of roles will assist workload management.
– Clarity of communication will reduce time spent following up incidents.
Push reporting will reduce need to search records
– Reinstatement meetings will be distributed more equitably among senior leaders.

Negative
– Additional details of learning contracts entered into SIMS record by PA to Vice Principal.
– Vice Principal to modify design of SIMS fixed term exclusion report.

In this case, while two members of staff have additional tasks, the overall benefits justify these (and will be experienced by these colleagues as well as others.

We have now adopted Inclusion of a workload impact analysis in all new proposals as a school policy. It’s only a small change, but it’s a practical way of turning an aspiration to manage workload into a concrete reality.