Get the Students to Discover the Learning Outcomes

As a very keen and determined PGCE student at Bangor University’s outstanding School of Education, I was introduced very quickly to the importance of making my students fully aware of the learning outcomes (sometimes referred to as ‘aims’ or ‘objectives’), every single lesson. On a very fresh summer morning at the beautiful science labs at Bangor’s ‘Normal Site’, I and the rest of the science students were given a deck of playing cards. We were then asked to shuffle them and play poker, but keep any diamonds that were dealt to us, indefinitely. When this was finished, we repeated the game, but this time we kept any multiples of three. Once this was over, we were each given a set of coins and asked to toss each one in turn. If we got a head, we could keep the coin; whereas a tails meant that we had to dispose of that coin and place it into a big tub in the middle of the room. After about 30 minutes of doing this, we started to look at each other with rather puzzled and bemused faces. Some of my friends started to utter “What’s the point in this?” and “Why the hell are we doing this?” At this stage, our instructor stopped the activities and asked us all a very simple question: “How was that?”

A fun activity, but why were we doing it?
A fun activity, but why were we doing it?

The replies came slowly at first, but as soon as a few people had mustered enough nerve to reply, more answers soon followed.”It was okay, but I wasn’t sure why we were playing those games”, “It was good at first, but I lost focus after a while” and “The whole lesson just seemed completely pointless”. After the exchange of a few giggles, we could all see that this was part of the instructor’s plan all along (he was always very shrewd in the way that he introduced us to key concepts). He then asked “What do you think the purpose of this lesson was?”. Again, the replies came in thick and fast “Something to do with data and numbers”, “Learning how to use games to entertain students” and, finally, one student hit the proverbial nail on the head – “To understand that if the students don’t know why they are doing something, then they’ll lose focus”. This final reply was correct, but incomplete. For this particular session, the instructor was trying to teach us two things. The first objective was to learn that it is easy to ‘cherry-pick’ data in scientific experiments (hence the collection of the ‘diamond cards’ and disposing of each coin that had yielded a tails). The second was the one that’s most important to me and you: that learning is only productive and effective if the students know what the mission/objective of each lesson is.

After learning this crucial lesson, I quickly put it into practice during my first year of teaching. I would always write the lesson objectives on the whiteboard (or project them on a screen), straight after I had given my starter activity. My lessons always started promptly, and my students always knew what my mission was. However, despite this, something was still missing. The problem was that almost every teacher in my school had been trained in a similar methodology, and were all doing the same thing. Each lesson to my students seemed like, in the words of one Year 9 boy, “different versions of a computer game with the same exact layout, just different colours and different bad guys to fight” (I thought that was quite a profound conclusion, actually. I gave that boy a house point for his linguistic creativity).

So what was missing? Why, despite following best practice, were some of my students still losing focus? Why was it that at the end of each lesson some students couldn’t even remember the objectives I’d shown them 45 minutes earlier? Well, the answer, as I discovered much later than I probably should have, was found in that unusual session back at Bangor University. The reason that I can remember that particular lesson so well is because it contained a sense of mystery, and because I and my peers had to figure out the lesson objectives for ourselves. But how did we figure out those objectives? Answer: The activities of the lesson aroused within us a sense of curiosity about its purpose.

We all remember things better if we’ve had to discover them by ourselves, as opposed to being ‘spoon-fed’ the information. More often than not, we are also more proud of those things that we’ve had to overcome, adapt to and solve by ourselves, than those things we’ve attained easily, and this principle feeds directly into this very effective methodology for beginning a lesson:

Begin each lesson by assigning work, analysing it and then getting the students to generate the learning outcomes for the lesson
Begin each lesson by assigning work, analysing it and then getting the students to generate the learning outcomes for the lesson

By using this methodology you will not only capture your students attention as soon as the lesson starts, but you will also be encouraging them to use ‘higher order thinking skills’, especially if the students do the following:

  • Build models or construct some kind of concept illustration
  • Solve an open-ended problem (e.g. “You have five minutes to build a useful object out of the drinking straws on your desk”)
  • Include emotion in their work (e.g. “Imagine you are Neil Armstrong on the day he landed on the moon. Write a quick diary entry for him on that day. How did he feel?”)
  • Solve a logic problem (e.g. breaking a code, or answering a series of questions in sequence which lead the students to a final conclusion)
  • Use their physiology in an unusual way (e.g. “You have five minutes to build a tower out of the objects on your desks. One person in your group needs to balance the objects on their head. Who will create the tallest, most balanced tower?”)
  • Have a choice over whether to tackle the problem using a left or right-brain approach (e.g. “Sarah needs to buy food and drink for a birthday party. In front of you is a price list for every item at Partylicious candy store. Sarah only has 45 pounds to spend, so help her out! Maybe you could write some selected shopping lists for her, or draw a collection of items that she could buy.”)

Conclusion: Start your lessons promptly by assigning a good-quality starter activity, analyzing it thereafter and then asking the students to consider what the objectives of the lesson might be. I assure you, by starting your lesson in this way your students will benefit far more than if your lesson has an unfocussed start, directed solely by the teacher.

Working With Colleagues: The Gossip Mill Produces Toxic Flour

You and I could walk into any school staff room at morning break time and, after about five minutes, we could easily distinguish between the ‘Chatty Cathys’ and the ‘Reserved Richards’. Gossips love to espouse whatever is on their mind, even if nobody else wants to hear it. They’ll tell you one funny anecdote after another, ranging from which salon they went to last week to how difficult they find the new pupil assessment software the school’s made them use. There’s also one other thing that gossips are really good at, and that’s dishing out the dirt on anyone who happens to be the topic of the current conversation.

Gossiping at work? Not a good idea.
Gossiping at work? Not a good idea.

Gossips, without fail, are people to completely avoid at all costs (where possible). One of the reasons why gossips are famously passed over for promotion is because they can’t be trusted with the sensitive information they’d be exposed to in a managerial role. They generate distrust, and you should be very cautious with what you say when around anyone who is a famous gossip – you don’t want to give them fuel for a fire that they can burn behind your back! Additionally, if you happen to be sat with a gossip who starts to speak negatively about a colleague or the school in general, then don’t be afraid to get up and walk away. What’s more important: having a laugh or having a job? Besides, do you really want to be sat there when everyone’s complaining about the principal and that awkward moment happens when the deputy head walks into the staffroom? If you’re sat with gossips, or if you’re seen to be hanging around with them and chatting with them frequently, then you’ll be associated with them in the minds of senior management. If you plan on having a long and fruitful career in teaching, then remember this golden rule: don’t gossip, and don’t associate with gossips.

Another point to note is that, if you feel bold enough, you should oppose gossip whenever you hear it (but try not to come over as being bossy or intimidating). If you’re planning on entering middle or senior management in your school, then it’s in your best interest to shut down the gossip mill before you get promoted; the same people who are gossiping about the leadership style of the Lower Secondary Head will one day be gossiping about you, guaranteed. If you hear gossip that puts anyone in a negative light, then feel free to comment with a “Wow, I would really hate it if someone said something like that about me” or even “I don’t think it’s right for me to take part in this conversation”. Trust me when I say this: gossip is toxic, and you can never be guaranteed anonymity when you spit venom! It’s not uncommon for gossip to filter up to management, and if you’re name is mentioned when this happens, you may have to endure quite an unpleasant conversation with someone who is rightly annoyed with you.

Behaviour Management: Make Your Students Feel Important!

I have a friend who is a massive lover of dogs. He owns a fine collection of beautiful breeds including Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shetland Sheepdogs and of course, everyone’s favourite: Golden Retrievers. He also runs a training centre for dogs, where he and his staff teach the animals how to sit, fetch and how to let you know when they need to take a call of nature. Another section of his business involves training different breeds for various dog shows, including the world famous Crufts show in England, which is held annually. He and his team have amassed an array of medals and trophies, all finely displayed at his home, by getting his dogs to look pretty and perform various tricks and tasks. His dogs jump through hoops, climb up platforms,  run through tunnels, catch tennis balls, jump over hurdles and meander speedily around obstacles to get those shiny objects of recognition that are finely displayed for all and sundry to see. Needless to say, my friend was very proud of his dogs and what he saw as his achievements.

A happy dog, but what does it take to make people jump through hoops like this?
A happy dog, but what does it take to make people jump through hoops like this?

As I was preparing to write this post, I was thinking about the dynamic that my friend represents. He was incredibly proud of all of those trophies and medals that were glistening brightly in the many display cabinets at his home. However, his dogs couldn’t give two hoots about those trophies and medals; all they wanted was food, water and some attention to make them happy.

This short description of my friend’s activities demonstrates an essential facet of the human condition, which I have found to be true for adults and children alike: we all want to feel important. This is a feature unique to humans, and it’s a characteristic that distinguishes us from animals.

Every high school student you will encounter, no matter what their domestic situation is or how much peer pressure they are under, craves a sense of personal importance just like you and I do. It’s the reason why we wear posh designer labels, why we brag about our new car or house on social media and why we beautify images of ourselves using various apps on our smart phones. It’s also the reason why a lot of young people turn to drugs, join gangs and get involved in thug culture. The trick with students is to make sure that they are receiving their validation; their sense of importance, from positive sources.

For our students, the best way that we can make them feel empowered and important in a positive way is by enacting the following steps:

  1. Find out what the strengths, hobbies and interests of each of your students are: This can be daunting, as you’ve probably got a whole gaggle of students that you teach and it’s hard to remember everything about everyone. If you have too, buy a special notebook and write down snippets of information that you pick up. Is Thomas exhibiting his artwork at a local gallery this weekend? Write it down. Does Cassandra love fashion design and magazines like Cosmopolitan? Write it down. Did Jason score a goal at lunchtime football? Write it down.
  2. Act on the information you have gathered: Use the information to engage your students in their lessons. If the output of a task or project is open to negotiation, then suggest a way for a particular student to produce that output in a way that is personal to them. Does Damon like boxing? Get him to create an animation or movie of a boxing match in which each boxer represents one side of the debate. They can say counter phrases whilst they box, and the winner will represent the argument that Damon agrees with the most. When doing group work, assign roles to each student based on their strengths, and make it clear why you have chosen each student for each role. I once had a student who was famous for being confrontational, and he was the figment of every teacher’s worst nightmare in that school. However, I noticed quickly that he was very good at art, so I made him the class ‘art director’, where his job was to check each student’s presentation. He loved the positive attention, and he became my most compliant and hard-working student. I also took a special interest in him by going along to the art room to look at his work, and view his pieces in a local art gallery. This extra effort on my part really paid off, and other subject teachers were amazed at the change they saw in him.
  3. Always turn a negative into a positive: Have you just taught a student who ‘played up’ or had a ‘tantrum’? Has one of your students just had a ‘bad day’? Make a special note of this, sit down with the student, and offer your help and guidance. Focus on the positives of this situation, and what the student did well. Perhaps this time the student didn’t swear – now that’s a positive and a step in the right direction. Maybe your student was frustrated because they couldn’t quite make their work ‘perfect’ – brilliant, this shows a desire to do well and try your best. Tell the student how pleased you are that they care about their work so much, and offer more time to get it done if needs be. Maybe another student annoyed the kid who played up – offer a number of solutions to the student such as a seating plan and the chance to have a ‘time out’. Get the student to reflect on solutions, and praise them for being reflective and proactive in wanting to move forwards, and not backwards.
  4. Focus on the long-term goals of the student: Some students are completely unsure of what they want to do in life right the way up to age 18, when they’re about to start out at university. Others take time to develop their goals as they mature through high school and still others are very sure what they want from life since their first day in Year 7. Whatever the situation may be, you must remind your students that there’s a bright and happy light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train! Talk regularly with your students about their goals, ambitions and strengths, and constantly make them feel like they can achieve those goals by being supportive and enthusiastic for them. When students can see that there is a real purpose to school life; that all of these ‘pointless lessons’ can actually make your dreams come true, they tend to work harder. However, you, as a teacher, need to constantly reinforce this and it can take some time and effort before positive progression is seen. Stay strong, have faith, and I guarantee that your efforts will pay massive dividends!
  5. Use rewards more than sanctions, and make them sincere: When a student accomplishes something, and is then rewarded for this accomplishment, this reinforces the positive behaviour/process that lead to the outcome. However, the extent to which this reinforcement is maximized depends upon the depth, relevance and sincerity of the feedback given to the student. We’re all so very busy, and it can really tempting to just sign that house point box in the student’s planner, or hand out that merit sticker, with little conversation afterwards. However; if we’re going to be effective behaviour managers, then we need to spend more time giving sincere and relevant feedback to our students that focuses on the effort/process that went into the work or action that was produced. Always sit down with your students, especially those who have a reputation for being disruptive, and talk with them about their accomplishments. Tell the student how happy you are, and give a good reason (e.g. “I was so pleased that you took the time to draw large, labeled diagrams in this work. You also asked lots of questions, and you tried your best to avoid distractions”). This is actually quite simple when we think about it: all we’re trying to do is reinforce the behaviour that we want to see repeated again in the future.
When your students are made to feel important, or empowered, they are much more likely to enjoy the learning process. This has positive implications for behaviour too.
When your students are made to feel important, or empowered, they are much more likely to enjoy the learning process. This has positive implications for behaviour too.

Making your students feel important, or valued, is probably the most important factor in ensuring that you have a positive relationship with them (and, hence, lessons in which behaviour is good). One of the most memorable examples of this takes me back to first teaching post in Thailand, when I was teaching Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) to a group of Year 8 students. At that time, I was taking the students through the Expect Respect™ programme, and we were covering themes that centred around domestic abuse and neglect. At the end of my first lesson with this group, a very shy and withdrawn young girl spoke with me privately and said that she enjoyed the lesson because it made her reflect on what was happening in her home environment. She then revealed to me something which almost shocked me to a frail state of nervousness as a young teacher – she told me she was self-harming, and she shown me the scars on her arms.

The first thing I did at that moment was talk about the positives of this situation, and I praised her for having the courage to speak to someone. I asked her what she thought of the lesson, and she said that she could empathise with the people involved in the scenarios we had discussed. I said that that was a brilliant quality to have, and that she could use this in her career when she leaves school. She left with a very bright smile on her face, and I could tell that she felt empowered. I saw her domestic situation as a positive, because it gave her the experience she needed to help other people in similar situations.

After our conversation, I referred her to our school counselor who worked with her twice a week to talk about what she was going through and how to move forward. She told her counselor how she felt so refreshed by her conversation with me, and how she felt that she could be a counselor too!

As time went by, I constantly reinforced my belief and professional interest in this student. When we covered career clusters in later PSHE lessons, she was keen to talk about how she wanted to be a person who cared for, and helped, others. She talked boldly about her plans to make people happy, and she would allude to her life experiences as being valuable in making her a strong person. Prior to this transformation, this young lady was famous for crying in class, andwould often not take part in group activities. My belief in her, along with the help provided by other staff members, transformed her into a self-confident, determined person.

I am not ashamed to say that I was rather tearful when she got accepted into university to study occupational therapy five years later. She is now a professional, mature and empowered young woman who has a dream and a mission to help the people she comes across in her day-to-day life. I must admit, I can’t take all of the credit for this, as many individuals in the school worked with her to empower her to be bold enough to face life’s setbacks and move forward. However, I like to think that that first conversation she had with me all of those years ago was the spark that set the forest fire of her ambition raging through the wilderness of her life.

The end result. Happy and empowered individuals who are ready to make a positive contribution to society.
The end result. Happy and empowered individuals who are ready to make a positive contribution to society.

Nearly finished!

Yes! My book is finally finished at 42,346 words. A little more tweeking tomorrow and it’s over to the marketing and graphic design tasks! The effort was well worth it!

My book is basically a quick guide to classroom management in the high school. It should be available on Amazon in the next two weeks.

I’ll keep you posted!

There is light at the end of the tunnel!
There is light at the end of the tunnel!

Behaviour Management: Speak Up and Look for Positive Deviants

Have you ever noticed that there are some teachers in your school who never seem to have behaviour management issues? They just seem to be able to teach their classes with no disruption whatsoever; or, at the very least, they deal with disruption or poor behaviour quickly, fairly and consistently. These people are positive deviants; they should have the same problems as you do, but they don’t. These are people you can learn from, and who you should consult with regularly.

Be open enough to admit when you have a problem, and seek help from your colleagues.
Be open enough to admit when you have a problem, and seek help from your colleagues.

In many schools around the world teachers are made to feel inferior if they admit to having a problem. I have experienced this kind of culture first hand, and it can be very disempowering. You speak up and you say “I’m having problems with ‘student x’, he just never seems to listen”, and one of your colleagues pipes in with a “Really, well he’s fine for me”. The person who dishes out this quick and smarmy reply is either a positive deviant, who you can learn from, or they’re lying so that they can make themselves look good in public. If these kinds of conversation are commonplace in your school, then it can be difficult to have the courage to speak up when you have a problem. However, it is absolutely essential that you do speak up because you’ll probably find someone who can help you when the problem is in its infancy, allowing you to deal with it before it becomes really bad.

Key steps to take when seeking help from colleagues

  1. Speak up and admit when you have a problem: You can speak with a line manager or even another colleague you trust. If it’s a whole-class issue in which you’re having problems with disruption from multiple students, then try to find other teachers who teach that same class. Ask for their advice. The same rule applies if you’re having a problem with an individual student – find out who his or her other teachers are, and talk with them.
  2. Identify positive deviants: Find all of those teachers who have a positive relationship with the student, or group of students, you’re having problems with.
  3. Ask those positive deviants to observe your lessons: This can be hard to do, because most teachers absolutely hate lesson observations. However, you must see this as a massive opportunity to learn from the positive deviant who’s observing you. Besides, by just asking this person to observe your class you’ll be making them feel important, and they’ll probably like you all the more for it. Make sure you seek feedback from the observer, and be sure to record everything that he or she says about your lesson.
  4. Observe the positive deviants: Book a time when you can see the positive deviant ‘in action’. Try to observe them whilst they’re teaching the same students, and make lots of notes (or even ask for permission to video the lesson). Try to think of all of things that this person is doing to reinforce and promote positive behaviour, and then try to model this in your lessons. You may even ask the positive deviant to observe you again at this point, if you wish, just so that you can ‘fine tune’ the new techniques that you have learned.
  5. Be sure to sincerely thank the positive deviants when they have helped, and don’t forget to sing their praises to senior management and your colleagues too. For most people this seems silly – after all, why would you want to praise someone else’s teaching? I assure you: doing this will help you to build a strong professional relationship base that will really help if times get tough, or if you need help in the future. You’ll also be contributing to a whole-school ethos of mutual respect and openness, which can only serve to create a positive culture for everyone. You’ll also make a lot friends in the process!

This seems so obvious, doesn’t it? – Find your positive deviants and then model their behaviour. However; in most schools this never happens, and it’s mostly because our pride gets in the way. We don’t want to seem inferior to others by admitting we have a problem, and the rigour of school appraisal processes have turned lesson observations into an apprehensive, stressful part of a teacher’s life. This is incredibly regrettable and we must overcome this closed-mindedness and fear of being judged if we are to really learn from our colleagues and become the champion teachers we can be.

Staff Parties Are Not for Partying

All character names in this article are fictional

The staff party: A nice get-together with colleagues, or an embarrassing binge-fest. It's your choice.
The staff party: A nice get-together with colleagues, or an embarrassing binge-fest. It’s your choice.

Now I’m going to tell you the mother of all staff party disaster stories, and unfortunately I happened to witness the carnage first-hand. I still shudder when I look back and remember the actions of the young man who brought so much agony upon himself. Thankfully, he is okay now and has a good job and two young, healthy children to delight in. Things could have ended up quite differently for him though, and his story offers lots of lessons for us to learn from.

Barry had just been appointed as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at a mixed comprehensive school in the North of England. He was well-qualified, having gained a first class honours degree and a PGCE, and was fresh out of college. Management were excited about having him on board as their first ever ESL specialist, and he was invited to come along to the welcome meal for new staff so that he could meet the new colleagues that he would be working with.

The evening started really well with nice conversation followed by speeches from senior management. Barry and the rest of the ‘newbies’ were introduced formally, and the party atmosphere kicked in soon afterwards. The school had provided quite a large budget for the event, since they wanted their new staff to really feel valued and welcome. The drink started flowing, with free ale on tap, and the disco lights started to dance around the dimly lit function room. Everyone started to let their hair down, and Barry wasted no time in ‘getting into the swing of things’.

Barry had one problem; an issue that had haunted him on many an occasion in his life (and had caused him some problems at university too). He was never able to handle alcohol really well. It made him boisterous, flirtatious, loud and outright aggressive. Tonight was no exception.

He started of pretty normally, enjoying pleasant conversation with his new ‘friends’. However, after only one or two drinks, his voice became louder, and he started to get more pushy. He didn’t realize how loud he was, but people’s heads were starting to turn at every one-liner he shouted, every swear word he spluttered and every laugh he made. If that wasn’t enough, he had his eye on a pretty petite blonde-haired lady named Karen, also a new teacher, who was sat a few spaces away from him. When the person who was sat next to her got up to go to the washroom, Barry saw this as his golden opportunity to sit next to Karen and begin ‘working his magic’.

Barry thought he could work his magic, but he was wrong.
Barry thought he could work his magic, but he was wrong.

Barry was a sophisticated, well-dressed, articulate and handsome young man. He had a series of girlfriends both at high school and at university, and he knew he was attractive. However, he made the almost fatal mistake of thinking that he could treat Karen just like any other girl he’d hooked up with in the past. He was wrong – Karen was his colleague, and that means a whole new set of rules needs to be followed in, what was to Barry, a very new type of social arena.

Barry slurred his words as he asked Karen her name. He’d read a few dating advice books, and he knew how to get a woman talking. At first he came across as being rather charming, but after a short time the textbook-style, classic flirtations started to roll of his tongue like Thai red curry when you initially thought it wasn’t ‘that spicy’. “I can tell you are a really sophisticated woman, especially since you dress so well”, “What do you look for in a man – I bet you have really high standards, so I guess I must off your list” and on and on it went, with lots of subtle hints that he was ‘interested’ in her. A short time later, after enough ale had entered his bloodstream, he felt bold enough to make a pass at her, moving his lips abruptly towards hers. Well that was the guillotine that almost decapitated his career, and what followed next was a chain of events that I’ll probably never forget as long as I draw breath.

What Barry didn’t know was that Karen had a boyfriend, and he was at this party, sat just opposite from him. Karen and her partner, Adam, had been hired as a ‘teaching couple’ (a practice that’s becoming more and more common in secondary schools). Adam had already spotted Barry’s obvious advances towards his girlfriend, and after seeing him make this pass, and hearing his girlfriend shout “No” and slap Barry chiefly around the face, Adam flipped out. He got out of his chair and squared up to Barry, and a rather mad brawl ensued between the two men, with all the shouting and kicked over chairs and broken bottles that came with it. The headmaster and the senior managers were dumbstruck, and everyone piled in to split the two men up. The bar manager asked both men to leave, and the whole affair was very embarrassing and cringe-worthy, even for those who were just innocent onlookers like myself.

Not your typical staff party scene
Not your typical staff party scene

Had this have been a normal brawl away from the prying eyes of workmates on a Saturday night, then Barry may (and I do mean may) have gotten away with this. However, Barry’s problems had only just begun, and he had to go to school the following week and start teaching and working with his new colleagues productively. What kind of foundation stones of trust and mutual companionship did Barry lay at that staff party? I think we all know the answer to that – very, very shaky ones!

Immediately after this incident, management had already decided to get rid of Barry as quickly as possible, and that was before he had even met his first students! How could they allow him to spend any great length of time at their school after this outrageous incident? He had planted some rather poisonous seeds of distrust in the minds of his colleagues, and they quickly started to talk about him behind his back. Barry knew what he had done was wrong, and he dreaded going into school for his first day of teaching.

Barry decided to try to make amends as soon as possible, and the first thing he did on his first Monday morning at school (which was an INSET/teacher training day) was to go straight to Karen and Adam and apologise sincerely. They both accepted his apology, but it wasn’t enough. His behavior that evening was so bad that all of his colleagues were talking about him behind his back. The headmaster called him into his office for a meeting, and Barry was mortified at the thought of even looking him in the face again. In that meeting, Barry was basically told that his behaviour at the staff party was absolutely atrocious, and that it would take him a long time to gain the trust of his coworkers after this. What Barry didn’t know was that, secretly, he had already been set aside for dismissal; management just had to decide which method to use to get rid of him, and how quickly to do it. They decided in not renewing his contract and the end of the two years he had signed up for, which, for Barry, was the nicest way that they could let him go.

Surely this is every teacher’s worst nightmare, right? You would be surprised at how many teachers, both new and old, let their inhibitions go to ruins when they are socializing with colleagues from school. Barry was lucky this time; the management of his school consisted of sweet ‘old-timers’ who sympathized with Barry as he was a very young man. They provided him with good references, and he secured a job at new school before his contract was over. Things could quite easily have gone the other way though – the SLT at Barry’s school were very generous and understanding in this case, but this is certainly not the status quo for most schools. Tough regulations from local government and accrediting bodies, along with the usual professional ethics requirements that teachers are constantly held subject too, place a lot of pressure on school managers to make sure that they recruit well, and that they root out ‘bad apples’, quickly.

Make sure that you don’t turn into a bad apple through inappropriate behaviour at staff gatherings.

Teaching Overseas: Tips for Teacher Globe Trotters

All around me people are chatting, walking, laughing and complaining. The smell of spicy glass noodles fills the air, along with the pungent exhaust fumes released from tuk-tuks and motorbikes. Hundreds of these small vehicles rush past every minute as the relentless humidity eats away in the mid-morning sunlight.

I’m at food vendor in old Bangkok, near the sprawling China town district. I’ve been teaching at international schools in Bangkok for seven years, and I don’t miss home one bit. 
It all started in 2008 when I was teaching in England. One day I went to a friend’s house and met a beautiful young Thai girl, who’d just completed her master’s degree at Salford University. I fell in love with her, moved to Bangkok with her, and she is now my wife. We’ve been very happily married for four years now. 

The vibrant jolt of Bangkok: My home for the past seven years

Prior to moving to Thailand I checked out the TES jobs website (this is where the world’s best international schools post their job openings). I found a vacancy for a Science teacher at Traill International School in Bangkok and, since this was a CfBT accredited school with an excellent reputation, I applied immediately. 

A few weeks later I had an interview with Traill’s principal at the Hilton in Cardiff. He checked through all of my references, and was impressed enough to offer me the job a few days later. I was thrilled! I was about start a new life in a new country. 

My first day of teaching at Traill was a bizarre, but incredibly pleasant experience. I’ll always remember my first lesson – Year 10 IGCSE Chemistry. The students were all so incredibly polite, and were enthusiastic to complete each task I set them. They asked questions, were incredibly interested in the subject and at the end of the lesson every student said “Thank you, Mr Richard” before walking through the door to go to their next class. I was stunned! 
Whilst I taught many wonderfully polite and enthusiastic students at state schools in the UK, I had never received such a consistent ‘whole-school’ sense of politeness, eagerness to learn and dedication from my students before. I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven.

Things to do before you teach overseas 

  • Try to acquire a wide range of teaching experiences. International schools look for candidates who can teach a range of subjects. Whilst being in Bangkok, for example, I have taught general Science, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics and German
  • Look for schools that have been accredited by a professional body, such as CfBT, CIS or WES. Schools that that are accredited have gone through a rigorous inspection process to ensure that they meet international standards.
  • Create a teacher portfolio, containing your certificates, examples of marking/assessments and any nice letters, notes or e-mails you’ve received from parents, students or colleagues. All of these things are golden pieces of evidence that you can present at interview, or even e-mail to the school as part of your application.
Me with characters from a famous Thai primary school literature series

Advantages of teaching abroad 

  1. If you choose an accredited school, you’ll most likely find that standards are high, student behaviour is excellent and a very generous salary and benefits package will be offered
  2. You’ll get the chance to experience a new language and culture, which can only serve to enrich your life in many different ways
  3. You will gain lots of transferable experiences, such as teaching ESL students and delivering specialist curricula (e.g. The IGCSE and IB Diploma)
  4. If you choose your country wisely, your living expenses will be much less than in your native country. Whilst living in Thailand I’ve bought property, a car and I still have money left over. Back in the UK this would have been nearly impossible for me to do.
  5. You’ll work with some amazing colleagues, who’ll have a wide range of expertise to share with you.
  6. Most international schools offer an excellent orientation programme, in which you’ll get to know your new colleagues well
  7. Access to services like healthcare will be much more convenient than in your home country, as a good international school will provide you with private health insurance as part of their benefits package. This means that you’ll be able to attend probate hospitals and be treated on the day, as opposed to the long wait you may endure if imprisoned in your native country’s national health service.

Disadvantages of teaching abroad

  1. If you can’t speak the local language, and you don’t have a friend or partner who does, then this can make life difficult. However, a good school will provide full support with this (one of my friend’s used to bring his Thai mail into school so that the office staff could translate it for him). Also, you see this as a positive challenge – learning a new language is fun!
  2. You’ll probably have to teach a far greater number of ESL students than you would in your native country. This places extra demands on you in terms of differentiation and making the pace of the lesson match the ability of each student. You may have to speak more clearly and slowly.
  3. The parents of international school students are fee-paying, and therefore they (rightly) have very high expectations. Read my blog post on working with parents for more about this, and don’t forget that whilst teaching abroad you’re not on holiday, and you’ll be expected to do an excellent job.
  4. Some international schools are very results-driven, and some teachers find the pressure of this to be very overwhelming. However, you should see this as an opportunity to really stretch yourself and gain valuable teaching experience at the same time.

My time in Thailand has been filled with happiness and lots of challenge. I wouldn’t change my life one bit, and I never regret leaving the UK all those years ago to teach overseas. It was the best decision I ever made.

Me and my wife. Happily married in Bangkok.

Think Before You Click ‘Send’: How E-mails are Secretly Destroying Teaching Careers

All character names contained in this article are fictional

Wayward e-mails are secretly destroying careers
Wayward e-mails are secretly destroying careers
Sending and receiving e-mails has now become an obligatory duty for teachers, especially in big institutions. A form tutor asks you for feedback about a particular student, so you e-mail your reply. The deputy head asks for any items for tomorrow’s meeting agenda, and those people that have issues they wish to raise type their responses and click ‘Send’. You have a problem opening a file on a school computer, so you send a quick message to the ICT technician. You e-mail parents. The list goes on and on.

As teachers, we are spending more time sat down in front of computers than ever before. E-mails allow us to communicate important items quickly and efficiently, and this ‘convenience’ is being improved upon year after year as smart phones and smart watches increasingly utilize novel systems to make dealing with e-mails an easy and fun task. All of this has made e-mailing become a ‘mechanical’ part of one’s working day, where little thought is needed to deliver a quick message.  What most people don’t consider, however, is that e-mails are secretly destroying the careers of teachers, along with everything else they’ve worked for.

Charlene was annoyed. She had been slaving away for the past two terms getting her ‘A’ – Level Chemistry students ready for their final exams. She had lead after school revision clubs, printed reams of past-exam papers and resources, spent hours after school planning and setting up practical activities and had spent many a late night updating her school’s VLE with a myriad of resources for these senior, pre-university students. She felt that she had gone above and beyond the call of duty, and when term three came along and her students were on study leave, she planned to use her gained time to prepare resources for the next academic year.

Knowing that Charlene now had a considerable amount of free time, her head of department, Francis, thought it would be a good idea for her to help the other science teachers alleviate some their workload. She asked Charlene to take on one of her colleague’s Key Stage 3 classes for that term, and she asked her to help assess some of the end-of-year tests for the students in classes that she didn’t teach.

Charlene was furious! She felt completely unappreciated and exploited. She had worked her socks off all year, doing things that her other science colleagues didn’t have to do, and now she was being asked to do more. She needed to get all of her frustration off her chest, so she decided to e-mail her good friend: Tracey; who happened to be her NQT tutor in her previous school. She laid it all out, saying how her boss was a complete idiot (using some rather colourful language) and how her efforts all year had gone completely unnoticed. She felt really ‘hard done to’, and typing it all out made her feel much better. However, she made one mistake that proved to be the Armageddon for her career in that school – she sent the e-mail to Francis by accident, and not to her NQT tutor.

Using an e-mail system to complain behind someone’s back can be a fatal, career-killing mistake
This kind of situation happens all the time – teachers sending e-mails to the person they’re talking about, and not to the intended recipient. For Charlene it was coffin nails for her job at that school. Francis scheduled a meeting with Charlene, and her conclusions were made very clear. She felt that Charlene could have dealt with her frustration in a much more professional way; for example, by simply talking it over with her. If Francis had known Charlene’s plans to get some good resources in place for the next academic year, then she would have passed on less work for her to do in her ‘gained time’. Additionally, the tone of Charlene’s e-mail was so negative and ‘immature’, that her character as a professional was now being called into question. Could she be trusted as a sensible member of the staff body? What if she had sent an e-mail like that to a parent instead? After Charlene was passed up for promotion the following academic year (because of feedback from her head of department to the school principal), she left by her own accord. To add insult to injury, Charlene’s new school needed a reference letter from her current head of department. Thankfully, Francis felt kind enough to emphasise Charlene’s good points, as opposed to writing the king of all character assassinations that she could quite easily, and understandably, have produced.

This story teaches us that e-mails should be handled with care. Always take time to craft e-mails properly, and always assume that every person in your school will see it. Never assume e-mail privacy, and always choose your recipients carefully. With the ability to send e-mails through voice-command and touch-screens on smart phones, it is now even easier to make these fatal mistakes than it has ever been before. Be vigilant!

Using e-mail as a professional messaging tool

  • E-mails are not private: That’s right – you’re school principal could be looking through your inbox as you read this! E-mails provide managers with a unique window into an employee’s life that they would never normally have in their day-to-day interactions. It is such a good ‘teacher monitoring tool’ that most schools will now have professional e-mail systems set up for them which allow ‘snooping’ by senior management. This is perfectly legal, and you’ve probably signed your consent for it in your employee contract. Many schools are now making all new teachers sign an ‘Acceptable use of ICT’ agreement, where it will explicitly say that your e-mails should not treated as though they are private. However, despite this, many teachers still do not follow professional e-mail etiquette.
  • beautiful-15679_1280
    Smart phones and tablets have made it easier for us to make silly mistakes, such as sending an e-mail to the wrong recipient
    Never complain in an e-mail: There are lots of obvious reasons for this, and many centre around the ‘management snooping’ issue. Additionally, however, many employees fall into the trap of sending an e-mail to the person they’re complaining about, rather than the person it was intended for. This can have apocalyptic consequences for you, especially if the e-mail is sent to a manager. Avoid this by making all e-mails professional, imagining that they’ll be blown up to A1 size and posted on the headmaster’s wall (because as far as you’re concerned, they might as well be).
  • E-mails can be copied, forwarded and saved forever: Whenever you send an e-mail, you are creating a permanent piece of evidence which may be used against you (or to support you) in the future. E-mailing your best friend to tell them how much time you’ve wasted drinking coffee today, or how you can’t wait for the semester break
    An e-mail is a digital document that can be copied, forwarded and saved in a retrieval system indefinately
    to come around because you’ve ‘had enough’, are not good ways to fill your HR file. I feel it’s important to repeat that you should treat all e-mails as if they were posters in the principal’s office.
  • Extinguish all flames: A ‘flame’ is a hostile or insulting message that is sent from one internet user to another. They often contain profanities, expletives or complaints, and in the teaching profession they are most commonly sent and received through e-mail. If you receive a flame from anyone then you must do two things right away:
  1. Respond to the person who sent you the flame, making it clear to them that they should never send you a hostile message via e-mail again. Make it clear that e-mails are not a private messaging tool, and that you do not respond to expletives or profanities. You should also do this for any unprofessional or inappropriate e-mail, such as one from a colleague talking about how much he has slacked off that day.
  1. Delete the original flame e-mail. If your inbox is being monitored, and a member of senior management sees the flame, they may think that you are in agreement with the person who sent it.

Teachers are held in high regard by students, parents and the wider community as a whole. We can never be ‘off-duty’, and we must strive for perfection and professionalism in all of our undertakings. 

Lesson Observations: True Stress for a False Snapshot?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

It’s that time of the year again. Your line manager has asked you to choose a suitable class for her to observe, and a preferred time. You have about a week’s notice, in which you prepare every possible resource under the sun, ask for lesson suggestions from colleagues or online forums and basically get stressed like mad until it’s all over.

And the outcome of it all: In some cases, your observer evaluates you on the basis of an overly-prepared lesson in which you were probably very nervous and apprehensive. Those who do well under these conditions are praised as great teachers that we can all learn from, and those that don’t are asked to constructively reflect on ways in which they can improve.

There are pro’s and cons to this approach to ‘performance management’: much of which depend upon the school’s culture. On the pro’s side, if school managers are supportive, approachable and understanding, then teachers will readily accept the formal observation process as a necessary way to reflect upon their professionalism.

However, even under these circumstances, a teacher is only being evaluated on the basis of a snapshot of a lesson. Does this really help anyone? Doesn’t this seem like a lot of stress for a futile output?

As professionals working in a people-centred industry, shouldn’t we be approaching our personal growth in a much more adult and sophisticated way?

Surely a better approach would be as follows:

  1. At the start of the academic year, sit with your team and write down all of the things you’re good at as a teacher, and all of the things you think you could improve on
  2. Find out who in your team has a strength that you can capitalize on (e.g. Using tablets and mobile devices to support learning)
  3. Arrange peer observations with your team members, so that each person watches someone else who they feel they can learn from
  4. If you feel that you need help with a particular aspect of teaching (e.g. building rapport with students), then ask someone who has a particular strength in this area to come and observe one of your lessons, so that they can offer their advice for you to learn from
  5. Document all reflections, and use these as the basis for teacher appraisals

Isn’t this a more pleasant and, crucially, more productive way of using lesson observations as part of the performance management process?

One of my former colleagues once said “If you want to know who’s a good teacher, then ask the students”. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Most people, when confronted with this, will say something like “Aha, well, kids are just gonna say that they love the teachers who don’t give them homework to do”. Hmmm, I don’t think so. My observations after twelve years of teaching in a wide variety of schools in both the UK and here in Thailand have told me that kids like the teachers who are rigorous and professional whilst also maintaining good classroom rapport.

With this in mind, consider doing some kind of student led self-appraisal every so often. Perhaps you can set up an anonymous Google form for your kids to fill in, which asks crucial questions about your performance as a teacher (e.g. How quickly you hand back homework).

When one works in a school where there is a collective culture of helping each other; where teachers help teachers, students help students and students and teachers help each other; then haven’t we achieved something special? Isn’t that the ideal environment for fostering good professional development and performance management?

I’ll end by providing some links, which will hopefully give some ‘food for thought’ on this topic for new and experienced teachers alike:

How to Ace Lesson Observations: 10 Tips for PGCE Students
Lesson Observations: We’re Coming to Get You!
Lesson Observations Can Ruin Teachers’ Careers




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Teachers as Role Models

I was a very lucky high school student. As a teacher today, I can honestly look back at my days as a student and say that I was lucky; very lucky

Was I lucky to be taught professionally? Yes. Did I always get my work back quickly, and was it thoroughly marked? Yes. So what’s the big deal? That happens in loads of schools, right? 

I consider myself lucky not just because of the answers to the above questions, but also because of one very important (and often overlooked area of teaching): the subliminal behaviour of my teachers.

I went to one of the best schools in Wales – St. Richard Gwyn Roman Catholic High School in Flint. At this school, the subtle behaviours of all of my teachers reflected those of true, committed professionals. Here’s why:

  • I never saw any of my teachers smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol
  • I never, ever heard any of my teachers swear or use expletives
  • I never saw any tattoos on any of my teachers
  • Every teacher genuinely and sincerely cared for my education and wellbeing, with many going out of their way to help me and other students.

When does a teacher’s position become laughable or untenable? Is it just those extreme cases of negligence  or misconduct that call for action? How high should we set our bar?

In my ten years as a teacher I have, unfortunately, witnessed the exact opposite of the four bulletpoints I mentioned above in a few of the people I’ve worked with in the past. However, am I taking things too seriously? I personally don’t think I am.

 The subliminal behaviours of teachers have a long-lasting impact on the learning, development and the respect levels of students. Can the biology teacher lecture to his kids about a healthy lifestyle, only to be seen smoking by the school gate? Can a P.E. teacher respectably do his job whilst being morbidly obese? Can any teacher use swear words or expletives within earshot of their students and then expect this to be seen as acceptable behaviour? Can we really be role models whilst sporting visible tattoos of an egregious nature?

Surely, before we start trying to control and manage student behaviours, shouldn’t we manage our own? Surely a teacher’s first priority is to be a role-model for his or her students, right?