Things to look forward to in the 2019 Spring term

With Christmas and new year celebrations gone, the winter weather and long dark nights may seem just the time to hunker down and count the days till summer, but don’t despair: there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the 2019 Spring term!
Christmas isn’t over yet! Christmas isn’t just a single day, but lasts until 6th January (twelfth night). Traditionally the decorations stay up till then. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year isn’t until Monday 7th January.
While it may seem dismally dark outside when the alarm goes off each morning at the start of term, remember that from now on the days will be getting longer. The Spring equinox is on Wednesday 20th March so from then on we’ll have more daylight hours then night, with the clocks going forward on Sunday 31st March for the start of British Summer Time.
There are a multitude of feasts, festivals and special events to look forward to this term:

    2 January to 23 February RSPB Big Schools Bird Watch. A chance to get pupils involved in some citizen science by contributing to this annual bird survey. You can find out more and get class resources from the RSPB website.
    Friday 25 January Burns Night. Scots the world over celebrate their national poet.
    Sunday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day, an occasion many schools mark or build into their teaching. The theme this year is Torn from home. You can find out more and order free resources from the HMDT website.
    Thursday 31st January Young Carers Awareness Day. Championing the needs of Young Carers, the theme this year focuses on mental health. You can find out more from the Carers Trust website and via the #CareForMeToo hashtag.
    Tuesday 5th February Chinese New Year. Commencing the Year of the Pig.
    Thursday 14th February Valentine’s Day
    Monday 25th February to Sunday 10th March is Fairtrade Fortnight. The focus this year is on fair trading of cocoa. You can find out more and get school resources from the Fairtrade Foundation.
    Friday 1st March is St David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales, and a bank holiday in Wales
    5th March is Shrove Tuesday (or Pancake Day), with the next day, Ash Wednesday marking the first day of Lent.
    Thursday 7th March is World Book Day in the UK (although the rest of the world celebrates this on 23rd April). You can find out more about this, and events throughout the year from the WBD website.
    Friday 15th March is Red Nose Day. This charity event takes place every two years and is a firm fundraising fixture in many UK schools. You can find out more and order a fundraising pack from the Comic Relief website.
    Sunday 17th March is St Patrick’s Day, when half the world discovers its Irish roots. Monday 18th March is a bank holiday in Eire & Northern Ireland.
    Thursday 21st March marks both the Hindu festival of Holi (‘festival of colours’) and the Jewish festival of Purim.
    31st March is Mothering Sunday in the UK (the international date is 12th March).
    Monday 1st April is April Fools Day. It’s the first time in several years that this has fallen on a school day, so watch out for jokes!
    14th April is Palm Sunday in the western Christian Calendar, with Good Friday bank holiday falling on 19th April, although with Easter falling later this year, most schools will already be on holiday on these dates.
    Saturday 20th April is the First day of the Jewish Passover
    Sunday 21st April is Easter Sunday, with the Easter bank holiday on Monday 22nd April. This date is also the first Stephen Lawrence Day. This day was announced by the Prime Minister in 2018 as a national day of commemoration for murdered teenager. You can find out more from the website of the Stephen Lawerence Memorial Trust.
    Tuesday 23rd April is St George’s Day. He’s the patron saint of England, but there’s no bank holiday for the English, so it will be back to school for many.

The list contains something for everyone, I hope, and plenty to look forward to. Let me know if I have missed any important dates and I’ll add them.
Whatever you are looking forward to this spring, have a Happy New Year!

Festival and event dates from www.timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

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.

Exams: Use the motivation, lose the stress

2021-22 Update

I have updated this popular article, originally posted in 2018, to include links to advice from the GCSE / A Level exam boards on examinations and stress.

Teachers look 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. The pandemic has led to increased anxiety in many young people and disruption to both internal assessments and external exams means that they have had less practice preparing for and working under exam conditions.

With the move to 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 in the past 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.

Here, I have extended previous posts on exams (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.


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 specific advice on taking exams, and the impact of the pandemic, from the Student Minds website
  • These pages from the Mind website include a handy downloadable PDF document as part of their student Mental Health Hub.
  • 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.
  • AQA provide advice for candidates on Managing Exam Stress. They also advise talking to parents, teachers or a school counsellor.
  • Edexcel/Pearson have advice on Exam Stress and Wellbeing including tips for a calm approach to revision ans mindfulness.
  • OCR have tips on Looking After Yourself and guides on time management and avoiding procrastination.
  • WJEC/CBAC have advice on Exploring and Eliminating Stress, including recognising & combatting signs of stress written by Dr Rachel Dodge.
  • 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