I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications).
It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.
I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it.
I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time.
As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:
Seek help when in doubt
Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day
These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call.
Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.
I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:
Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.
One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:
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Teaching online can be a very productive and worthwhile experience for both the teachers and students involved. However, at this time of widespread school closures due to COVID19, many teachers have had to quickly adapt their skills to teaching online without full knowledge of the heightened risks involved.
This blog post aims to educate teachers everywhere about the things we can do to protect ourselves when teaching online. I believe that this list is so important that I’ve included it in my upcoming book for teachers: 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps (Release date: 8th April 2020 on Amazon globally).
‘The List’: What do we need to be aware of?
Anything we say or do online can be recorded, stored, edited and forwarded without our knowledge.Google Hangouts Meets, for example, can be set to autonomously record your meetings and auto-generate a transcript of what was spoken and by whom. We must keep every interaction with our students professional and clean. The same high standards of personal conduct that are expected of us in the classroom apply even more when we are teaching online.
Know when your camera and microphone are switched on.When you start doing video conferencing for the first time, you might inadvertently set your students on a task after a live stream video briefing and then proceed to make a coffee; yawn and stretch in front of the camera; or even chat casually about how messed-up life is with your spouse who’s also working from home. Be careful. This is a very easy trap to fall into (I’ve come close to doing this myself on several occasions!). Make sure your camera AND MICROPHONE are switched off when you no longer need to engage with your students in real-time. In addition, be equally aware of video conferencing apps that can auto-generate captions. If you switch your camera off, but fail to switch off your microphone, then that next YouTube video that contains expletives and blares out of your mobile phone will not only be audible to your students, but captions may even appear on their screens!
Parents will watch you teach, so be prepared for that.In my experience, many students like to switch off their cameras towards the beginning of a lesson and, unbeknownst to you, a parent could be watching. This places us, as teachers, under even greater pressure to deliver high-quality lessons than when we are snug and comfortable in our respective classrooms. Be professional and keep standards high. If we aim to be clear, caring and professional, then our students and their parents will respect and appreciate our efforts all the more for it.
Be aware of chat features that are built into apps.These can contain casual emojis that one can choose to use; but we must be careful not to chat casually with any student (even by adding emojis to our messages). Keep all communication conducted through integrated chat as professional as you would in the classroom. I expand on this advice in a separate blog post (How Should Teachers Behave on Social Media?). This section is well-worth a read if you want to see some real examples of teachers who lost everything because of their lack of alertness to this point!
If you are not sure about an app’s appropriateness for use, then check with your school’s Senior Leadership Team or your line manager.Some schools like to keep all their prescribed online learning apps under the control of their domain (e.g. schools that use Google Classroom and Gmail may prefer to use Google Hangouts Meets as their video conferencing system, as opposed to Zoom). A great story that illustrates this point is a slight blunder that a former colleague of mine made several years ago. Knowing that Flipgrid was a popular video-exchange system used by many American schools, she recommended it to her colleagues in an upcoming collaborative teacher-training session. However, the school’s head of ICT followed up on that training session by e-mailing all the secondary teachers to tell them not to use Flipgrid – because it wasn’t a system under direct control of the school.
Check student well-being on a regular basis.When students work from home they can feel lonely, extremely bored and anxious. At this very moment, for example, as I write this prose; the novel coronavirus pandemic has snared much of the world’s population with fear and confusion. This fear and confusion is certainly being felt to varying degrees by many of the students I currently teach. Check that your students are having regular breaks and are sticking to a routine. E-mail parents of the students you are responsible for to find out how things are going. Recommend any tips you can for working from home productively and maintaining a personal sense of happiness and wellness. Share any tips that your school counselor or Student Welfare Officer sends out. When interacting on a video-call, check how your students look and feel. Are they dressed properly? Are they tired or stressed-out? Are there any student-wellbeing issues that come to your attention? Is the technology working correctly for your students?
Effective online teaching requires effective technology.This can be a challenge when using old hardware or software (or both) and when internet connections are slow. We must adapt: no matter what it takes. Set work via e-mail if video conferencing is not an option. Experiment with using the apps listed in my book (100 Awesome Online Learning Apps) on your phone if you don’t have a tablet or notebook/laptop. Figure out how your device’s integrated microphone works if you don’t have a headset. Go through the apps in this book that seem appealing and test the efficiency of each when setting tasks through the technology that’s available to you. Check-up on your students regularly – do they have the technology required to access and complete the tasks you are setting?
Last week I wrote a shortblog postabout the issue of gender-neutral toilets, and how some schools in Australia and the UK are now forcing all students to use them. The reasoning that most schools give as to why these toilets need to be installed is that they are ‘inclusive’, and that they make transgender students feel more comfortable.
Tremendous opposition to the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in schools has already been voiced by parents, students, local MPs and members of local communities. At Deanesfield Primary School in the UK, for example, parentslaunched a petitionto remove the unisex toilets that were covertly installed over the summer vacation; with one main concern being that menstruating girls felt as though their privacy was being invaded. Many girls were refusing to go the toilet during the day and were at risk of picking up urinary-tract infections as a result.
I made my opinions clear last week, and I still stand by them. I made the point that no school should impose new restrictions or radical changes on their students without first consulting with parents. This was a classic mistake made at Deanesfield, and it backfired dramatically (consequently, I did actually e-mail the school asking for an update on the situation but I have thus far received no response). I also questioned the underlying concept of a child being able consent to being ‘transgender’ (along with the surgery and puberty-blocking chemicals that go along with that), when that same child cannot consent to sexual activity, cannot drink alcohol, is not considered to be mature enough to vote and cannot legally drive.
Thatblog postearned me some haters, with one individual commenting on my Facebook posts with expletives, profanities and explicit prose. That person was subsequently banned from the Teachers in Thailand Facebook group by the admin (and rightly so):
So this is a very triggering topic, and rather than briefly summarize some of the more ‘popular’ stories by citing news articles, I’d like to perform a brief investigation of some of the research that feeds into this topic. I won’t have time to cover absolutely everything, but I will provide a synopsis of some of the main findings.
The architectural approach
With privacy being cited as an issue for menstruating girls who are forced to use gender-neutral washrooms, one solution could be a functional one: change the architecture so that privacy is no longer invaded.
This is exactly the point that Sanders and Stryker make in‘Stalled – Gender Neutral Public Bathrooms‘[South Atlantic Quarterly (2016) 115 (4): 779–788. Duke University Press]. As a combined effort between a world-renowned architect (Sanders) and an LGBT professor of Gender and Women’s Studies (Stryker), this paper stands-out for it’s unique take on unisex bathrooms, with a suggested floor-plan included in the content (given below):
My conclusion: I have a number of issues with the architectural approach proposed by Sanders and Stryker:
The design still includes an area outside the cubicles where boys and girls have to mix and mingle. I think this removes the ‘communal’ factor of bathrooms, as girls and boys do like to use toilet areas for chatting and socializing with their own gender. I’m still not sure if menstruating girls would be happy mingling with boys outside the cubicle areas.
Massive investment would be needed to change current girls’/boys’ washrooms in schools to the communal format shown above (for most schools). This investment seems superfluous to needs when one considers thatless than 2%of American children identify as being transgender. In addition to this, it’s confusing that transgender students cannot use current boys’/girls’ washrooms. If you are biologically a boy, but you officially identify as a girl, then you could use the girls’ washrooms. Vica-versa if you are biologically a female. But is the solution really as simple as that?
Public space is not a neutral space(?)
According to Kyla Bender-Baird, gender-segregated bathrooms are the result of “technologies of disciplinary power, upholding the gender binary by forcing people to choose between men’s and women’s rooms”
That’s some profound statement! I had no idea that I was being powerfully controlled by being forced to choose which washroom to enter. I thought I was consciously making a choice to enter the men’s!
“The resulting lack of safe access to public restrooms is an everyday reality for those who fall outside of gender binary norms. Faced with a built environment that denies their existence and facilitates gender policing, I argue that trans and gender non-conforming people sometimes engage in situational docility. Bodies are adjusted to comply with the cardinal rule of gender – to be readable at a glance – which is often due to safety concerns. Changing the structure of bathrooms to be gender inclusive and/or neutral may decrease gender policing in bathrooms and the need for this situational docility, allowing trans and gender non-conforming people to pee in peace”
It seems as though Kyla supports the functional/architectural approach then – advocating for the creation of washrooms that are built in such a way that anyone can use them.
My conclusion: I don’t agree with Kyla on her point that gender-segregated washrooms were invented as a human-control system (the official history certainly doesn’t support this).
One thing I will say in Kyla’s defense is that if an architectural solution is found that is cost-effective and satisfies the needs of the majority (men and women – that’s binary men and women who do not wish to change their gender), whilst also meeting the needs of the tiny minority (transgender individuals), then that could be a way forward.
Potty Politics and the Ladies’ Sanitary Association
1905:First women’s bathroom installed in London after a tremendous effort and fight by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association and similar organisations, along with support from the famous George Bernard Shaw [This really surprised me, I have to say. I thought that women’s restrooms were a thing long before 1905].
1970sAmerica: Court cases were still being fought over the segregation of black and white toilet facilities. Prior to this early ‘toilet-integration’ period, blacks and whites couldn’t drink from the same fountains or use the same toilet facilities. [Note from me: I think this was a humiliating and disgraceful period in human history. The fact that fully conscious adults penned policy to the effect of segregating toilets on basis of race is frightening and baffling to me].
In the Autumn of2001, several students gathered at the Stonewall Center (an LGBT educational resource center at the University of Massachusetts). They formed a special group to work on transgender issues on campus. Their efforts eventually resulted in gender-neutral restrooms being installed on campus through their ‘Restroom Revolution’, and they also succeeded in bringing transgender, ‘gender-queer ‘and ‘gender non-conforming’ issues into the limelight on campus.
Key takeaways from this paper are the very revealing opinions of both the Restroom Revolution advocates (a mix of gender non-conformists and ‘allies’ – straight people sympathetic to their cause) and their opposition.
In December 2001, the Stonewall students wrote a proposal to university administrators in which they stated:
“As gender variant people, we encounter discrimination in our daily lives. The most pressing matter, however, is our use of the bathrooms in the residence halls in which we live. . . . We are often subjecting ourselves to severe discomfort, verbal and physical harassment, and a general fear of who we will encounter and what they will say or do based on their assumption of our identities.”
Olaf Aprans, a writer for the Minuteman (an on-campus student publication), expressed his strong opposition by questioning the foundational motives behind the Restroom Revolution:
“The most probable motive for the Restroom Revolution is not the need or want of transgender bathrooms, it is the desire for attention. Transgender students have been using gender-specific bathrooms for years without any complaints. Why the sudden outcry for transgender bathrooms? The answer is easy, the activists behind this movement are using a petty issue like bathrooms as a medium to throw their lifestyles in the face of every-day students”
Biological identity, supported by irrefutable genetic evidence, is also cited by the paper as one of the modes of opposition:
“There are only two things that make me a man and they are my X chromosome and my Y chromosome. . . . People have the right to feel that they should not be the gender that God gave them. . . . However, the fact that some people do not live in reality or that some wish reality were not true, does not entitle them to a special bathroom in a public university”
My overall conclusions
The concerns that transgender individuals have about their personal security and comfort when using restrooms seem legitimate. However, the concerns of women who do not wish to share washrooms with men are equally legitimate [and as we saw from the UMass article, women fought very hard for the right to have their own restrooms in the first place]. The issue of ‘washrooms for all’ seems to me to be a classic example of an old conundrum – that you can’t please everyone. We can, however, aim to please the majority. The minority will have to adapt.
An architectural solution may be viable, but its application needs to be consistent (and this will require excellent international collaboration). It also needs to be cost-effective, and provide suitable privacy for everyone. I can’t see how this can be done, even when one applies Sanders’ and Stryker’s design, without invasive CCTV systems in place.
An architectural solution may work in a shopping mall or other public place, but I’m not sure if it’s a feasible solution for a school. Children are not as mature as adults, and issues such as bullying, up-skirting, inappropriate use of smartphones, silly and disruptive behaviour, etc. are difficult to police in a gender-neutral facility without invasive CCTV systems, some form of staffed duty or an open communal space that removes comfort, rather than adds to it.
I will end by saying that schools would be well-advised to avoid forcing all of their students to use gender-neutral toilets. The variables one has to deal with in such scenarios are immense and difficult to police/control. If needs be, provide adequate male, female and gender-neutral toilets so that students can at least make choices that feel right for them.
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“If you want to learn to swim jump into the water. On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.”
I had a very unique and life-changing experience two weeks ago. One that I was not expecting.
It was the October half-term and I decided to to take a well-earned break from things for a few days. I and my wife traveled to Khao Yai National Park in Thailand to enjoy a few days in nature. We both certainly appreciated the fresh air and scenery.
On the way to Khao Yai I noticed a road sign that said ‘Pak Chong’ which specified a number of kilometers to get there. It wasn’t far way, and as a massive Bruce Lee fan I knew that this was the place where The Big Boss was filmed.
That’s quite a big deal for a lifelong martial artist and a big Bruce Lee fan. The Big Boss, filmed in 1971, was the movie that propelled Bruce to epic levels of fame in Asia. It was his ‘big break’, so to speak.
I, like a lot of pre-millenial kids, had a rocky life growing up. I wasn’t without life’s necessities but a number of people at that time really tried to mess things up for me. I was bullied at school by a number of individuals who wouldn’t dare bully me now. My parents had also divorced when I was around 2-years-old and that created a domino effect which basically made things difficult.
We’ve all had our fair share of challenge in life. Many people choose to give up when the going gets tough – they might turn to alcohol, drugs, gangs or things like that. Thankfully for me, however, my dad took me to learn Shotokan Karate at age 11, and soon after that I learned about Bruce Lee.
I read Bruce’s ‘Chinese Gung Fu‘ and ‘The Tao of Jeet Kune Do’when I was only a teenager. Bruce’s message about handling combat seemed to resonate with me and began to influence many non-combat areas of my life:
Train every part of your body and work as hard as you can – that message helped me a lot. Physical training and hard study helped me to ‘escape’ from some of the problems I had at home. I believe that Bruce’s message helped me to develop this drive.
Use the enemy’s strength against him: the idea of matching aggression with relaxation, allowing the opponent to complete his force, and then respond with aggression (the ‘Yin Yang’ dynamic) also had parallels in my life. When people got in my face and moaned, bullied or complained at me, I felt it necessary to listen, respond calmly and remain unfazed. I would then get on with my life and try harder than ever. I just couldn’t be provoked or pushed around anymore. The bullying just didn’t upset me anymore, and when one kid went too far and tried to push me around, I used my Shotokan skills to respond (and that’s the polite way of describing what happened). Needless to say, he stayed away from me after that.
Bruce Lee lived by example. He actually had high-level skills. He practiced what he preached. If Bruce told you to “train every part of your body”, you’d better believe that he was the ultimate epitome of that philosophy.
I honestly believe that good teachers cannot be hypocrites. If you’re teaching your students about the dangers of smoking but you smoke, then you’re a fraud. If you’re teaching physical education but you’re morbidly obese, then you’re a fraud.
Bruce wasn’t a fraud. If he told you to do it, then that meant he could do it like a pro.
I went to the Big Boss’ house in Pak Chong and I was surprised to find that it had changed little since 1971. To stand at the location where Bruce Lee actually fought the bad guys, and the Big Boss himself, was like going on a sacred pilgrimage:
The Big Boss’ house is actually an active temple called Wat Siri Samphan. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with the head monk at the temple, who told me that soon the temple may be refurbished, and some of iconic structures that still stand may be knocked down:
I am now working with a number of individuals to preserve Bruce lee’s legacy in Pak Chong by securing the historic filming locations so that they can be enjoyed by many generations to come.
Updates will follow.
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