3 Things That Make a School Outstanding

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

The bell rang at 12.30pm to the typical sigh of relief from students who’d been sat in lessons all morning. Bustling through the corridors towards the school canteen, library, school field or some other designated ‘turf’ were the majority of my classmates at St. Richard Gwyn R.C. High School. I, on the other hand, had an appointment with my favorite teacher.

It felt like an easy journey to the German classroom. I was excited because I would be practicing my German oral phrases and responses with my teacher, who had been giving up a good portion of her lunchtimes for the past few weeks to help me become more confident and competent. She was always patient, and always willing to help.

Then, there was that time when my Biology teacher talked me through an end-of-unit test I had completed, so that I could know exactly where I had lost marks. I still remember the conversation word-for-word, almost thirty years later. I finally grasped some important concepts that day.

At the core of my good fortune to attend an outstanding school as a teenager was one most important thing: outstanding teachers. All of my teachers really cared for my wellbeing, and they often went above-and-beyond to provide me with extra tuition, or even to have one-on-one conversations with me to put me on-track, or to reprimand me when I had slipped up. Great teachers, I found, were more important than great facilities.

There are other factors that make a school outstanding, however. Even the best efforts of a team of outstanding teachers can be thwarted by the subterfuge of negligence, bad policies or even school culture. In this blog post, I will explore all of the key factors that work together to make a school outstanding.

#1: The school’s vision and mission are the starting points

A well-crafted mission statement that infuses everything the school does as a community can have a massive and profound impact on students’ lives.

At Saint Richard Gwyn, for example, our slogan was “Learning Together Through Christ”. This phrase was spoken at every assembly, written in many school publications (such as the school’s weekly newsletter) and was reinforced by teachers during some of our lessons. I don’t think I and my peers fully realized the power of this collective action by the school back then, but that statement was actually having a dramatic effect on the way we saw the world, and ourselves. Whether you are religious or not, you can appreciate that this statement sent home a bigger message than just those four words:

  • At our school we learn together. Our focus is serious, and we help each other.
  • We have faith in Christ at out school. We are expected to follow the moral principles outlined in the gospels.

America’s Center for School Change has the following to say about a school’s Vision and Mission:

Developing the school’s vision and mission are two of the most important steps toward creating a successful program. Done well, they give clarity and direction for a school. A muddy vision or mission can help lead to continuing conflicts, and a school that has difficulty identifying priorities.

Center for School Change

I like that last part about “identifying priorities”. What does your school’s vision and mission and say about your institution’s priorities, and how well-embedded are those priorities?

Over the years, many educational scholars have stressed the importance of the school’s vision and mission, and how well those ideas are communicated and transformed into expectations. A classic amongst these scholars is William Rutherford of the University of Texas who, as far back as 1985, stated that effective school leaders need to:

  • have clear, informed visions of what they want their schools to become; visions that focus on students and their needs
  • translate these visions into goals for their schools and expectations for their teachers, students and administrators

So it would seem that simply having a vision and mission for a school is not enough to make a school truly outstanding. That vision and mission must focus on students and their needs, be translated into workable goals and be formulated as expectations for teachers, students and all staff members.

#2: Outstanding teachers make an outstanding school

A school’s best resource, by far, is the body of staff that comprise that school. Get that right and a school will usually be able to cope with the ebb and flow of daily circumstance in an effective manner. However, still to this day, schools are focusing far too much on teachers’ qualifications rather than experience, references and reputations, in my opinion.

This is the point where I’m going to have to speak bluntly and directly: an advanced degree does not make someone an amazing teacher; nor does a degree or qualification from a top university. Those credentials, actually, are meaningless in the context of determining one’s ability to manage behaviour, plan lessons thoroughly, teach with clarity and teach at an appropriate pace. Those qualifications may, however, allow a school to better market itself to parents and potential clients/customers (particularly in the private sector), but those qualifications never, in my honest opinion, determine a person’s ability to teach properly.

Teaching is a vocation: plain and simple. It’s a profession that one has to be built for, and one has to be passionate about in order to succeed. Experience has taught me that qualifications alone are not enough to determine a teacher’s suitability to teach. I, for example, have worked with a number of Oxford, Cambridge and PhD graduates over the years who were awful teachers who couldn’t communicate effectively with students and, in a significant number of cases, couldn’t teach at an acceptable pace or keep students engaged for long periods of time. On the other hand, I’ve also worked many such high-level graduates who were excellent teachers and helpful team-players.

Have you experienced the same in your time as a teacher?

My message for schools is simple: Focus on what the students and colleagues think of the teacher you’re hiring. Place more emphasis on teacher-portfolios and references – evidence of actual teaching ability – rather than the quality of a candidate’s qualifications.

#3: Effective systems make a school outstanding

Systems are like the glue that holds everything together. When a school has a clear vision and mission that’s backed-up by outstanding teachers and effective systems, everything then falls into place and runs smoothly (most of the time).

The most essential systems that schools need to have in-place can be remembered by what I hope is a useful acronym: C.A.R.S.Communication, Action, Rewards and Sanctions.

  • Communication systems need to be easy to use, and suitable for purpose. Schools that use the same system to communicate with parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders tend to experience better overall harmony than those that do not. Many schools, for example, choose to use e-mail for these purposes as it is a professional system that everyone can access. However, some schools (e.g. those in China) prefer to use a more real-time system for staff (e.g. chat apps like QQ and WeChat) and more traditional systems, like e-mail, for communicating with parents. Systems like this can cause undue stress to teachers, however, as it can be easy to miss messages posted within a chat stream. Teachers can also feel under constant pressure to respond, even outside of official working hours.
  • Action systems need to be workable. Teachers need to do things every day in a timely manner. Printing and photocopying, for example, should never be problematic (massive headaches are caused when printers don’t work, or when teachers are restricted to quotas, for example). Reports need to written via systems that are shared, and easy to navigate and access. Mock exams and internal exams need to be delivered via systems that make it easy for everyone to get their papers printed and organized in a timely manner. Timetabling needs to be seamless. Student locker systems need to be accessible and workable. The role of the form tutor/homeroom teacher within the school, and the systems needed to fulfill that role, need to be easy-to-use (a house system can often help with this). Registration systems need to be workable. Assessment systems and instructional software need to be carefully chosen and subscriptions need to be renewed on-time. File-sharing systems need to be in-place so that teachers can share useful resources with one-another.

Which action systems do you use in your school, and how could they be made to be more workable and accessible?

  • Rewards and sanctions systems – with emphasis placed more on rewards than sanctions. The consensus on the approach that should be taken is pretty clear in educational circles, and has been for some time. The UK’s Department for Education and Skills summarizes the key components of such systems best in my opinion:

Rewards, or positive consequences, are likely to encourage pupils to repeat the associated behaviour. Systems that emphasise praise for positive behaviour or regular attendance are more effective in motivating pupils to make appropriate choices. These appropriate choices contribute to a positive ethos in the school, thereby creating an environment for effective teaching and learning. . . . [S]anctions might be used only as a last resort, because using every opportunity to reinforce positive behaviour will have a greater and longer lasting effect than the constant use of sanctions for negative behaviour.

UK Department for Education and Skills, “Behaviour and Attendance Strand. Toolkit Unit 2. Key Stage 3 National Strategy. Everyday Policies: Rewards, Sanctions and Promotion of Positive Behaviour.” pp. 21. [Online] Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5708/1/6c37a9499c7e75eaa76fd736c63ca731.pdf

In fact, it’s been known for some time that rewards work better than sanctions for promoting positive behaviour. The most notable foundational statement on this matter, for example, was made in the concluding text of The Elton Report (1989):

Schools which put too much faith in punishments to deter bad behaviour are likely to be disappointed

GREAT BRITAIN, & ELTON, R. (1989). Discipline in schools: report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Elton. London, H.M.S.O. Available at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/elton/elton1989.html

Conclusion

Outstanding schools always have the following elements in place:

  • A clear vision and mission that’s student-centered and easily translates into goals and expectations for students, teachers and all stakeholders
  • Outstanding teachers, with a proven track record of excellence in teaching (not necessarily academic excellence)
  • Effective communication, action, rewards and sanctions systems

Bibliography and references (in order of appearance)

W.L. Rutherford. School principals as effective leaders. Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 67 number1, 1985, pp. 31-34

UK Department for Education and Skills. Behaviour and Attendance Strand. Toolkit Unit 2. Key Stage 3 National Strategy. Everyday Policies: Rewards, Sanctions and Promotion of Positive Behaviour. pp. 21. [Online] Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5708/1/6c37a9499c7e75eaa76fd736c63ca731.pdf

GREAT BRITAIN, & ELTON, R. (1989). Discipline in schools: report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Elton. London, H.M.S.O. Available at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/elton/elton1989.html

10 Ways in Which The Pandemic is Modernising Education

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Students and teachers the world over faced unprecedented challenges as the pandemic raged through its first and second waves. Staff and children were sent home (and back to school) on multiple occasions in many cases, and teaching methodologies had to undergo a massive revamp out of the sheer necessity to adapt to the immediate situation schools were (and, in some cases, still are) faced with. This ‘jolt’ of circumstance has changed education forever.

In today’s blog post I will explore the main ways in which I believe teaching and learning have changed, and what the implications are for students and teachers today. Readers should bear in-mind that this is an opinion piece, albeit based on my experience in the field as a high-school science teacher (at an international school) and my own research.

#1: Students have realized that traditional university education offers little return-on-investment

Coronavirus had a double-whammy effect on universities and colleges:

  • Students were sent home and had to learn online, raising questions about the effectiveness of instruction delivered at traditional lecture halls crammed with hundreds of students.
  • Overseas students stopped applying for courses in the UK and the United States in large numbers, and sought local alternatives.

These issues have been further compounded by the fact that a university degree no longer prepares a person for a lifelong career.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), for example, surveyed about 400 employers and 613 college students about how prepared those students were to enter the professional world in 2015. Some key findings were:

  • 65 percent of the students surveyed felt their writing skills were strong enough for the professional world, but only 27 percent of employers felt the same way.
  • 55 percent of students felt they were well prepared to work with people in which they had little in-common, but only 18 percent of employers agreed.

You can download the AACU’s research paper as a pdf for free here.

The merits of a university-level education have been questioned for decades, and now that the pandemic has forced so-many to ‘learn from home’ we are experiencing a new realization that education needs to be modern and delivered in real-time. As a result, online courses are booming, and students are now quickly realizing that there are affordable, higher-quality alternatives to a traditional university degree.

#2: Practical skills training has gained in popularity

There are many skills that students can’t fully acquire via remote-learning:

  • Dangerous/specialized science experiments (e.g. dissections and chemical reactions)
  • Woodwork, metalwork, carpentry, plumbing and other vocational skills
  • Mechanical and electronic engineering and robotics
  • Specialized cookery

As a result, many schools focused heavily on practical-skills training when students returned to school after the first-wave subsided (in large part due to fear of losing this opportunity in the event of a second-wave, which many schools did actually experience later on). In my opinion, this has caused a renewed interest in the practical skills enrichment activities that are often non-compulsory, yet very useful, components of school courses. I believe that we will see schools incorporating more hands-on tasks and activities in the years to come as a product of this realization.

#3: High-quality online courses are booming

Remote-learning is all-the-rage right now, and the numbers are staggering:

  • According to a recent survey by China Youth Daily, more than 87 percent of Chinese parents have signed their children up for online tutoring sessions to enrich their education
  • Financing for education technology start-ups has more than doubled, rising to $12.58 billion worldwide in 2020 – up from $4.81 billion in 2019, according to a report from CB Insights

Students are becoming increasingly aware that short-certificate courses from high-quality providers like EdX and Udemy are not-only affordable, but will provide the very latest industry-leading, accredited information. This poses a big challenge for traditional schools that are somewhat stuck-in-the-past following syllabuses and curricula that are at least several years old. In my opinion, schools will need to adopt fluid schemes of work and modernize fast, so that students can learn relevant, current, topical information in a traditional classroom setting.

#4: EdTech used for remote-teaching is now being used in traditional classrooms

Video-conferencing skyrocketed during the pandemic:

  • Zoom’s sales in the last three months of 2020 were up 370% compared to the same period in 2019, hitting $882.5 million.
  • During the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, Google Meets was adding around 3 million users per day.

Schools are now using video-conferencing within the school buildings themselves for assemblies, staff-meetings, whole-school quizzes and even screen-share tasks (a newly realized application for many teachers).

Video-conferencing’s adoption will make teachers more accountable, in my opinion, as illness may not be accepted as a reason to miss meetings which can be accessed remotely from home (even if only audio is activated). Schools will also adopt new ways to allow students to showcase work in real-time, as the screen-share features offered by video-conferencing systems facilitate this process quickly and easily (especially as student-work becomes more and more digitized).

#5: Schools are appreciating the need for kids to catch-up

Gaps in knowledge and misconceptions acquired during the remote-learning phase are surfacing quickly as students return to classrooms. This is generating a renewed interest in traditional pedagogical techniques such as accelerated learning and differentiation. Another positive is that many teachers are realizing further the importance of pace, and how students often have to have information presented in a number of ways, multiple times, before it is truly embedded. These discoveries will challenge schools to adopt the very-best instructional techniques and offer catch-up camps and classes for students who fall behind, long after the pandemic is over. This may provide school teachers with extra sources of income, as well as offering students the enrichment they need to succeed.

The problems presented by students needing to catch-up are not easy to solve, however. The British government’s recent programme to help pupils who missed school to catch up may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children, according to a recent report by the National Audit Office. The issues here seem to relate to tutoring not being provided in the first place to disadvantaged children, as opposed to any flaws in the methodologies being used [BBC News]. Schools will therefore need to ensure that attendance for catch-up courses is being monitored, along with the methodologies being executed.

#6: Terminal examinations have lost some of their credibility

Many exam-boards have cancelled examinations for the 2020/2021 academic year, as was the case last year. Grades have been assigned on the basis of teacher-predictions and coursework, and I believe that this has caused many students to question the validity of terminal examinations as an effective assessment tool. This shift in thought has also rippled into the online-learning market, which is gaining in popularity due to the very fact that terminal examinations are often absent from key course assessment components. Qualifications and certificates that are awarded on the basis of a student’s portfolio of achievements (such as course assignments) are gaining respect and kudos, and I foresee this trend continuing well-into the future.

#7: Students and teachers have become more tech-savvy

Classwork, homework, coursework and exams are being assigned, completed and assessed by evermore creative means. Students have had to learn to how to use specific learning apps out of necessity, and teachers have benefitted from automated assessment systems such as Google Forms, Educake, MyMaths, Lexia Learning and others. If the pandemic has had only one positive effect on education, then it is this: computer literacy has improved across the board.

This emergence of teaching and learning software and disruptive EdTech systems is not all sunshine and rainbows, however. It threatens to destroy the very fabric of conventional teaching. It is not inconceivable, for example, to foresee human teachers being fully replaced with software, droids and surveillance systems within a decade from now (easily). The main takeaway for teachers, in my opinion, is this: skill-up in EdTech, coding and computer science fast – we may be out of a job if we don’t.

This gradual erosion of a teacher’s role from ‘sage on a stage’ to ‘guide on the side’, and perhaps even one day to ‘chieftaincy to see with infrequency’, is something I’ve written about before. I’ve also made a video about this very subject matter which I’ve embedded below.

#8: More support is being made available for staff and student mental-health and wellbeing

The pandemic has had a devastating effect on staff and student mental health. Reuters, for example, surveyed school districts across America in February 2021 to assess the mental health impacts of school shutdowns. These districts serve more than 2.2 million students. Of the 74 districts that responded, 74% reported multiple indicators of increased mental health stresses among students. More than 50% reported rises in mental health referrals and counseling. [Yahoo News].

One positive of this is that school leaders are recognizing that staff and student well-being matters, and that can only be a good thing. Schools would do well to recruit counselors to assist with student referrals. and staff workload should be monitored closely. Happy teachers make happy students, and downtime gives teachers time to plan better lessons.

#9: The dangers of excessive screen-time and gaming addiction have been highlighted

I’ve written about the dangers of screen-time before, and we must not forget that an EdTech revolution brings with it some nasty realities, highlighted by one expansive report:

  • On-screen behavior is often compulsive, with young people typically spending no longer than one-minute looking at any particular page of content before swiping to something else
  • Social media takes up hours and hours of teenagers’ free time
  • Children from ‘low-income’ households seem more prone to compulsive use of social media than others
  • Many children in the study admitted to falling asleep at night whilst on their phones
  • Many children admitted that they felt that their compulsions were “mindless” and “pointless”, but felt compelled to use their smartphones on a near-constant basis anyway because there’s a feeling of incompleteness or ‘losing out’ when the phone is not being checked.
  • Some children in the study felt the need to check their phones whilst actually being interviewed by the research panel

The supervision of students whilst using EdTech is going to become a bigger and bigger issue as we move forward as educators. How many times, for example, have you walked around the classroom during some student-centered online activity to find students abruptly switching/closing some gaming/chat screens? I know I have, on much more than one occasion.

The solution may be a technological one – allow students to connect only through LAN or school WIFI and filter/monitor usage. Another solution may be surveillance systems inside classrooms, or perhaps even mandating that screens be always visible to the teacher (e.g. by having students sit in rows with their screens facing the teacher’s desk). There are obvious pros and cons to each of these proposals, and the decisions made will depend strongly on school culture and individual course/student aims.

#10: The pandemic pointed anew to blatant inequalities of income

Students in low-income areas have had to contend with less access to school counselors, technology and the training needed to access said technology. Some school districts in various countries around the world have responded by shipping laptops to schools and individual students.

As teaching continues to digitize, the needs of low-income students will continue to grow. Schools will need to address these issues, and that may put financial strain on districts and education authorities. Eventually, we may even see technology investment being pitted against the salaries of human teachers, and this will make our need to compete more immediate. As teachers, we are no longer fighting for jobs with each other – we’re contending with educational technology that threatens to completely replace us.

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10 Destructive Habits Every Teacher Should Avoid

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

In the quest to better ourselves on a daily basis we often consume self-help advice from places like YouTube, blogs and books. Most of this advice focusses on proactive things we should do to achieve success. With titles to choose from such as 4 Straight Forward Steps to Success and If You Commit to Yourself, Here’s What Will Happen, there’s certainly is no shortage of motivational and personal growth guidance out there.

Most of this self-help material, however, focusses on new things we should implement on a regular basis. Strategies that provide us with new things to do to improve productivity, health or wealth.

Many people use to-do lists to clarify priorities for the day, week or longer. How many of us, however, have thought to use not-to-do lists?

Few resources focus on what NOT to do, and this is a pity as such advice can often be the clearest and simplest to understand.

One video that really inspired me two weeks ago was 10 Habits You Should Stop Having with Ben Bergerson (embedded below):

This video resonated with me because of its simplicity, and my somewhat skewed opinion that it’s easier to stop myself doing destructive things than it is to implement a completely new habit. Perhaps I felt that I should stop doing destructive things first, and get used to that, before implementing some new strategies in my life.

So, let’s get right into how the past 14 days of trialing these 10 habit-stoppers went.

Habit Stopping Tip #1: Don’t hit the snooze button

This is something I’ve ashamedly preached about before, but in my daily life I’ve found it really difficult to implement. My warm bed entices me to climb back into it when my alarm goes off, and this is further compounded by an extreme feeling of tiredness for at least 10 minutes after waking (something that has gotten worse, I think, as I’ve grown older).

I managed to do this on 9 out of 14 days.

On those days that I did get right out of bed as soon as the alarm sounded, I found that I was in a much better mood during my teaching day (and in a state of better physical alertness) than on those days when I snoozed. I also found out that if I have an immediate ‘get out of bed’ ritual to follow, then I am much more likely to actually get out of bed. At the moment, that ritual involves switching off my alarm and immediately walking to the nearest 7-11 convenience store to buy coffee and breakfast – this acts as a kind of reward for not hitting snooze. If I were to snooze, then I probably wouldn’t have time for this.

As a result of not hitting the snooze button on 9 out of 14 days I was able to eat breakfast before school started, read over lesson plans and even avoid traffic because I left my home earlier, which brings me on to tip number 2…………

Habit Stopping Tip #2: Don’t get mad at traffic

Leaving home earlier (because I didn’t snooze) meant that there was less traffic to get mad at, so tip number one definitely rippled into tip number 2.

I have gotten mad at traffic many times in the past – and at my taxi driver for not driving fast enough; not turning quickly enough or even for going along a route I didn’t prefer. All of this mental complaining would put me in an angry frame of mind before my school day had even started.

“An AMAZING book for teachers!”

I managed to not complain at traffic for 14 out of the 14 days, and I found that I was in a better mood at school because of it.

Habit Stopping Tip #3: Don’t be late

This is one I’ve always advocated, and it’s significance will surely be obvious to the readers of this blog. When we’re late, then what we are saying is that ‘Your time is not valuable enough for me to be on-time’.

A good analogy I was once told is that if you had to turn up at a designated location to receive 10 million pounds in cash at 6am tomorrow, then you would certainly be there on-time, perhaps even arriving very early for this appointment.

We turn up early and on-time to those things we consider important enough to be punctual for. We therefore need to assign a high-level of importance to meetings, duties and any other activities/events that require us to be punctual.

Once again, tip number 1 (Don’t hit the snooze button) allows us to be on-time, every time.

Habit Stopping Tip #4: Don’t tolerate gossip

This is a principle I have (thankfully) had the sense to follow since day one of my teaching career, and I wrote about the devastating effects that gossip can have for teachers in my debut book, The Quick Guide to Classroom Management.

When we gossip, we show people that we cannot be trusted. Secretly, our coworkers are thinking “I can’t trust him – what if he gossips about me one day”. Gossip also circulates quickly, and so-called friends can very often be duplicitous: acting as ‘double-agents’ who pass on information to those who have been gossiped about.

Just don’t gossip – it’s that simple.

Not tolerating gossip takes this principle to another level – the advice being that if you hear gossip, then you should shut it down with, perhaps, a statement like “I don’t think it’s appropriate for this conversation to be happening”. This advanced-level step, however, requires bravery, and its consequences will depend on your workplace ethos and culture. You may just wish to take the easy way out by simply standing up and walking out of the room, or walking away from the gossip, whenever you hear it.

Habit Stopping Tip #5: Don’t watch the news

I found this one SO DIFFICULT to implement, and this really surprised me! By consciously attempting to stop myself from reading the news, I discovered that I often scroll through news websites because I’m simply bored. I’m hooked – and it was hard to break to this habit.

The idea behind this is that news is a distraction, and is very often biased anyway. The majority of the news we read is bad news, and most of it describes events that are beyond our control. Why waste our time and energy feeling sad about things we can’t change?

On those days that I stopped myself reading the news, I found myself with little else to distract me besides work. This increased my productivity.

Habit Stopping Tip #6: Don’t pass judgement

I’ve fallen out of the sky many times in my life. I started from nothing, and I know what it feels like to have nothing. I’m not trying to paint myself as someone special here – many people can relate, I’m sure. However, I try my best not to look down on people where possible because:

  • I never know the full story
  • I’m far from perfect myself
  • I know what it feels like to be inadequate – both in terms of skill and finances

Passing judgement is just another one of life’s energy drainers that we could all be better without.

Habit Stopping Tip #7: Don’t eat and scroll…….

…………and don’t scroll at any social gathering, for that matter.

When I see couples or families at restaurants and coffee shops, and all they are doing is playing on devices, it makes me very sad (but also happy that I have a great relationship with someone in which this never happens). People are quickly losing the ability to interact physically, in my opinion.

The principle behind this habit-stopper is presence – we should be present in everything we do if we’re to get the most out of it. As I write this blog post, for example, I’ve mostly ‘gone dark’ – my phone is out of reach as I know that if I check it I’ll never get this blog post finished.

I’m more productive and present when I’m not on my phone, unless I’m using my phone for a specific purpose.

Habit stopping tip #8 – Don’t check e-mail before noon

Does this apply to teachers? I’m not sure.

E-mail has become an essential part of my job, but some would say it is yet another distraction. I’m still on-the-fence about this one, as important announcements often come to me by e-mail, and they often need to be acted upon quickly. Are there e-mails that I don’t need to check before noon? Probably. E-mail is evolving quickly into a messaging tool, however, and as teachers we are fast-approaching a stage where we need to be reachable at all times at work. GMail, for example, is becoming more skewed towards Google Hangouts and instant messaging. As workplace messaging technology evolves, teaching will surely evolve with it.

Habit Stopping Tip #9: Don’t leave dishes in the sink

I loved seeing how this particular habit affected my life. It was very powerful.

I am typical ‘dish-leaver’, and once I started to pro-actively wash dishes as soon as I used them I found myself also doing laundry right away; tidying up after myself right away; putting my work clothes in my wardrobe instead of over the back of a chair; putting old cosmetics’ bottles in the bin right away, and on and on it went.

My home became tidier more quickly – and less clutter at home meant an overall sense of happiness.

I highly recommend this tip.

Habit Stopping Tip #10: Don’t wait for perfect

In the video provided at the start of this blog post, Ben uses the phrase “Jump, and grow wings on the way down”. As a result of this one statement, I found myself going to the gym more often, despite being in not-so-perfect shape.

That’s got to be a good start, right?

Have you grown your wings yet, or are they still growing?

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8 Ways to Increase Lesson Clarity

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management). Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Accompanying video:

Our lessons need to be clear in order for students to understand the subject content they are expected to learn. This is particularly important for older students who are preparing for exams, and who are therefore expected to memorize, understand and apply vast amounts of information.

An unclear teacher who presents information in a confusing way can be a source of dread for students who are expected to perform highly on end-of-unit tests and exams. A clear teacher, on the other hand, can make students feel confident, relaxed and comfortable with the learning process contained within each lesson.

The good news for us is that it is easy to make our lessons clearer with just a few, simple, proactive tweaks. In today’s blog post I offer my top eight suggestions for maximizing lesson clarity: all of which have been distilled from just over 16 years of experience. Within these paragraphs I will present the conclusions garnered from the many mistakes I have made in my teaching career, so that you don’t have to make those same mistakes yourself.

Lesson Clarity Tip #1: Share resources with your students in advance of each lesson

When we share instructional resources with our students in-advance of each lesson we provide an opportunity to read-ahead. And, of course, we should be encouraging our students to read-ahead before each lesson anyway, as this process will cement some foundational principles before greater detail is presented within each lesson itself.

Nowadays most teachers are competent in the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Google Classroom, Firefly, Moodle and so on. However, one aspect of this digital realm that’s not fully exploited is the ability to upload PowerPoints, Google Slides, PDF summaries, worksheets and other resources in advance of each lesson.

One big challenge that this poses for teachers is that these resources actually need to be ready and stored somewhere, in an organized fashion, before they can be uploaded en masse. This problem becomes further compounded when syllabuses change, and resources need to be adapted accordingly.

Where possible, we should have a sequence of slideshows, worksheets, summaries and other resources mapped out for a course before the course begins. Then, when day one of the course starts, all of the resources needed for the entire course can be ready for students to access right away. At the moment, for example, all of my PowerPoints for my entire two year IB Diploma Chemistry course are uploaded on the students Google Classroom, and are classified on there by topic.

Advantages to us, as teachers, when we do this are:

  1. We don’t have to scramble to upload resources on the day of teaching. Our time can be better spent on other things.
  2. We don’t have to scramble to find resources on a USB drive or some kind of shared folder. The resources are all in one place, online, ready to go.
  3. Students can view the presentations, worksheets, PDF textbooks and other materials on their individual device screens in real-time, as the lesson is happening. This aids our instruction, reduces note-taking time for students and even saves paper for printing (students can view worksheets on their screens, without the need for a printed copy, for example).

Lesson Clarity Tip #2: Don’t put too much information on slides

  • Keep text large and clear.
  • Make diagrams and illustrations as large as possible (as large as the slide is perfect, where possible).
  • Avoid ‘crowding’ slides with too much information. A slide filled with paragraphs of small text can be very off-putting for students, not least because the the text can be difficult to read when it’s so small.
  • Keep information digestible – present material in bitesize chunks. Avoid presenting tons of information all at once.

Lesson Clarity Tip #3: Avoid irrelevant information

It can be tempting to bring-in content that’s indirectly related to the material we are presenting: often to provide an extra dimension of fun and interest to the subject. A good example I can think of from my experience is when I was teaching physics to young teenagers some years ago. The topic they were learning was entitled ‘Sound and Hearing’, and the students had to learn about sound waves, the Doppler Effect and how human ears work.

In my youthful stupidity, however, I thought (for some bizarre reason) that it would be a good idea to teach the students about sign language. I thought that it would bring a bit of fun to the classroom and allow my learners to empathize with those in society who cannot hear properly. This proved to be a mistake on my part, however, as some students were confused about what exactly they needed to know for their upcoming test.

“Do we need to know about sign language for our test, Mr Rogers?” was a question I was asked.

The answer was no, of course. I had essentially wasted a good portion of teaching time bringing-in extra material that was unnecessary. That time could have been better spent reinforcing the foundational concepts needed to pass the test.

We must keep our lessons focused on the curriculum statements we are expected to teach. When we want to bring in topical information, then let’s do that after the students have learnt the main material. At the end of a recent physics lesson, for example, I played a short video of the recent Mars Perseverance Rover landing from NASA, as this was related to velocity, acceleration and distance (concepts we had been exploring in class). This NASA video didn’t form the main-body of the lesson, but was rather a short ‘treat’ for the students at the end of an hour of hard-work.

Lesson Clarity Tip #4: Always assign focused activities

Have you ever been in a rush at school and quickly found an online quiz or web-activity that relates to your topic, only to share it with your students and later find out that the activity wasn’t quit up-to-standard?

I’ve fallen into this trap many times in the past. I’ve assigned Quizlets, Wordwalls, Kahoot! activities and other online quizzes in a rush, only to later find the following errors:

  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes.
  • Content mistakes (in some cases).
  • Too much information (more than the students needed to know).
  • Too little information (not enough for the task to be substantial).
  • Irrelevant information (content that the students didn’t need to know).
  • Poor usability (problems with software interactivity and the user experience).

It’s vital that we check our third-party content thoroughly before we assign it to our students. This level of due process needs to be extended to offline resources, such as textbooks, too.

Lesson Clarity Tip #5: Speak loudly and clearly

We must avoid the following:

  • Mumbling.
  • Using colloquialisms that our students may not understand.
  • Speaking with an accent that may be unclear to some learners.

I quickly learnt the importance of the above three points when I moved to Thailand in 2008 to teach Chemistry at an international school. My students mostly had Thai as their first language, so I had to lose my thick North Wales accent (which even native English speakers would find difficult to understand at times) and I had to speak classical, textbook English. I’m “sound as a pound” became “I’m fine, thank you”, “That doesn’t quite cut the mustard” became “This work is not up-to-standard”, and so on.

We must ensure that our speech is clear and, just as importantly: loud. This latter point is of more importance now than ever before as teachers all over the world are wearing masks and visors when speaking. One thing that surprised me when I wore a visor to teach last summer was that my voice sounded louder to myself when I wore the visor, then when I took it off (due to vibrations and bone conduction).

Lesson Clarity Tip #6: Speak slowly

Our students need time to process information: especially when it is presented verbally. We must include pauses in our speech, and check for understanding along the way. It may be necessary to repeat key sentences a few times too, especially if the concept being explained is advanced, or technically challenging to understand.

Lesson Clarity Tip #7: Reinforce key words

Technical vocabulary feature prominently in official mark schemes, and are often the core components of a well-formulated answer to an exam-style question. Consider the following strategies:

  • Ask students to say key words when they appear in your lessons. In a recent chemistry lesson, for example, I said “Everyone say the word ‘resonance'”, after which the whole class said it. Forcefully getting students to articulate key words through deliberate speech can be a good way to prime the brain to remember those words when they are used in some thought process later on in the lesson.
  • Use exam-style questions and official mark schemes to show students just how important it is to write key words within an acceptable context during an exam.
  • Differentiate texts to make key words more digestible.
  • Encourage students to highlight key words in their notes along the way.

Lesson Clarity Tip #8: Use everyday language to explain advanced concepts (where possible)

Rephrasing sentences that contain subject-specific vocabulary can be a good way to help students understand the underlying concepts being taught. Here are some examples:

  • The train accelerated = the train sped up
  • The bond enthalpy of the C-C bond is…… = the energy contained within the C-C bond is…….
  • The dinner was sublime = the dinner was superb

We can prompt this process by repeating technical sentences in an everyday format, and we can ask our students “What does ___________ mean?”. This can lead to meaningful discussion that will serve to reinforce key words (Tip #7) and clarify the underlying theory of the lesson.

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Good Teachers Are Also Good Students

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

Accompanying video:

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). 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

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.

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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. 

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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:

  • Meet deadlines
  • 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.

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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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How a TEFL Gap Year Will Benefit Your Future

You may be doing your TEFL course and teaching abroad as a ‘gap year’ before starting a career which you studied for at university. Many people will ask you ‘Why do you want to teach English abroad? Aside from a so-called year off, how will it benefit you?’. Today, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director at Destination TEFL, to share her thoughts with us.

A year of teaching abroad can benefit you in number of ways:

You’ll gain confidence 

So many parts of this experience will help you to gain confidence – from travelling alone abroad to a new place, to experiencing new cultures, to doing something new, to learning to speak in front of people.

Your communication skills will improve

Techniques learnt on the course and practiced in the classroom thereafter, will improve your general communication skills. You will be far more aware of whether or not you have been understood, and will adjust the way you speak and listen to people in general. You will also become more confident speaking to large groups of people, as well as on a one-to-one basis.

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Your time management skills will improve

You’ll become the master of checklists! There’s nothing like leaving behind your materials and wasting all your hard work and effort to make you more organised! Carefully planning your lessons according to a time schedule will also be great practice for time management.

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You’ll become more aware of other cultures

As you’ve moved to another country and are teaching students who are not from your culture, you will become acutely aware of the differences between cultures, and the pitfalls of dealing with people from other cultures. These include misunderstandings, doing things in different ways, and knowing that what is acceptable in one culture, may not be so in another culture. In the corporate workplace one day, this will be a valuable asset to have, particularly in jobs where you’ll be dealing with international clients.

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Networking

You will make friends for life – after meeting people you would never have met back home. These could be your fellow classmates on the TEFL course, your fellow teachers while teaching, or neighbours and other locals, as well as your students. Having an international network of friends and past colleagues can also advance your career in ways you may never know – as you never know where the future may take you.

You’ll mature and grow as a person

All the challenges and hardships of living abroad will give you a tough skin and mature you in ways that staying at home in a familiar environment won’t do. Moving out of your parental home is testing enough for many young adults – but doing so in a different country really challenges!

Well there you have it. There are many more reasons to sail away from familiar shores, but these reasons are ones that you can proudly mention in interviews and cover letters. So what are you waiting for? 

If you’re thinking of getting a TEFL qualification and teaching overseas, then Destination TEFL can help you!

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Teaching Overseas for the First Time: Advice From Teachers

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management, The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback, 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps and The Rogers Pedagogical Planner: A Teacher’s Planner for Serious Professionals)

COVID-19 has clearly had a devastating effect on the aviation industry. With international travel brought to a virtual standstill, some airlines have found themselves laying off staff, downsizing and even going bankrupt

This is, of course, an unprecedented and horrific situation for the airline industry as a whole. In addition to this, restrictions on international travel have caused ripples to permeate throughout a wide variety of other industries: not least international education. Some effects that have been experienced by teachers (some of whom are my colleagues) are as follows:

  • Teachers who were appointed to roles overseas cannot leave their current country of residence to actually start their jobs.
  • Dependents, such as spouses and children, are often not able to move abroad with the appointed teacher as it’s difficult for many countries to get the necessary clearance and paperwork approved.
  • Teachers who were ‘on the fence’ about teaching overseas are now regretting the fact that they didn’t ‘take the plunge’ and move abroad sooner, as now their ability to travel has been restricted.

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That last bullet-point is an interesting one. It’s an ‘imaginary’ scenario based only on the anecdotal evidence I could currently acquire – a number of my readers have written to me to say that they regret not having made the decision to teach overseas sooner. 

Whilst I cannot be sure that this is a systemic or widespread regret that applies to the teaching profession as a whole, it is an understandable and logical emotional response to COVID-19 that we can consider. I imagine that when COVID-19 is ‘over’ (will it ever be really over?), and flight paths reopen, we will see a surge in applications for overseas teaching posts. 

Class Q and A

In anticipation of this, I’ve conducted a rather unconventional experiment this week. As a teacher with 12 years of overseas teaching experience (11 years in Thailand, 1 year in China), I decided to post my top 5 suggestions/tips for teachers who are considering moving overseas to teach. I posted these tips in the popular Teachers in Thailand Facebook group, to see what kind of responses I would get. After a bit of distillation (tallying up the responses with the most likes), I’ve come up with a fairly comprehensive and balanced list of pre-teach-abroad tips for all budding globe-trotters (I hope!):

Rule #1: Try to learn the local language – even a few words will show others that you are trying and you’ll be respected all the more for it.

In some countries, of course, this won’t be necessary. If you’re a native English speaker moving to Singapore, Australia, America or the UK (or another English speaking country), then you may only have to learn some of the local colloquialisms and get used to some unusual dialect. However, if you move to a country like China, for example, it’s a whole different story. 

Sometimes, learning the local language is essential. When I worked in Chongqing, China; for example; very few people could understand English (Starbucks baristas tended to be the best speakers – so hats-off to them). I had to learn some Mandarin just to survive. Learning the local language does have other benefits, too, however:

  • Language and culture are often very closely intertwined. Learning the local language can help you to understand why the local people think the way they think. This can lead to better relationships, less frustration and more common-ground and mutual understanding.
  • When you at least try to use the local language, you are showing that you have some respect for the local people and the country in which you are a guest (more on that later). In my experience, this goes a long way to building trust with others (e.g. that hairdresser you have to see every week, or that bar tender you see on the occasional Friday night). People tend to admire you more if you show that you are willing to learn, and you don’t just expect everyone around you to speak your language and accommodate you.

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Teachers in Thailand Response

This rule was generally well-received. A noteworthy response that offers some extra-insight is given below (of course, remember that this is Thai-centric, but could be applied to any native language):

“I had the advantage of a thorough pre-field language training (it leads to some interesting conversations with Thai adults — like “how can my English get as good as your Thai” — but even if you have much less Thai than that it can still be a bridge-builder that can make your life easier — and fortunately, there are now FB groups designed specifically for foreigners trying to learn Thai. Take it easy, and you will gradually get better at it.”  – Edwin Zehner

Rule #2: Do not leave home because you are trying to run away from problems – finances, crime, family issues – get any of these issues resolved first before you move overseas (or your problems might travel with you).

I must admit that this was a tricky one for me to phrase correctly in one sentence, and it did receive a little bit of backlash in the Facebook group. Before I include a noteworthy response or two, I’d like to add an extract from my debut book, The Quick Guide to Classroom Management (final chapter), which goes into this a bit more:

Extract from THE QUICK GUIDE TO CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT

SECRET NUMBER 46: Your Problems May Follow You When You Fly Away

If your motivation to leave your home country revolves around personal
problems you have such as debt, a broken relationship or family
issues, then don’t assume that all of these problems are going to vanish
as soon as the landing gear hits the tarmac in your new city. Certain
problems, especially those concerning money, can actually be
exacerbated when you leave your home country. Here are my top tips
for making sure that a problem at home doesn’t become a nightmare
abroad:

  1. Money: Think long and carefully about any debt-related or financial issues you have, and aim to resolve them before you board the plane. Many expatriates find it difficult to transfer funds back to their home country once they’re abroad, and this can have consequences in terms of meeting credit card and bill payment dates. You must ensure that you’ve inquired beforehand about the ways in which you can deal with your finances abroad, and you must remember to follow through. When one is residing in a foreign country, it can be easy to forget about the financial commitments you have in your home country. In the early stages, this can manifest as an awkward message or letter from your creditor, progressing to international criminal action if the issue is not dealt with. It might be a good idea for you to leave some savings in your native bank account which you can use to pay your bills and loans in the first few months of your new adventure. You may wish to get a trusted friend or family member back home to help you with this.
  2. Relationships: Don’t burn any bridges before you fly away. You may be travelling to an exotic new country to start a wonderful new chapter in your life, but you never know when circumstances may force you to return home to your native country. Try not to upset people before you leave, for example, by venting your pent-up grudges that you’ve had for years. You may also want to keep in touch with people at your old school as you may need to call upon them for advice, resources and help.
  3. Health: Try to bring all of your medical records with you when you travel, and have them deposited at the hospital you plan to use when you start at your new school. Whilst medical care provided overseas can be of an extremely high quality (especially when your school pays for private medical insurance as part of your package), it can be very difficult for doctors to suggest a suitable course of treatment if your exact medical history is unknown. If you end up spending a great deal of time teaching overseas, then you may find yourself moving
    from hospital to hospital, or even country to country! It is essential that you do not underestimate the importance of keeping your medical records safe, accessible and updated. Unfortunately, however, this is the one aspect of international teaching that is most overlooked by teachers.
  4. Crime: If you’ve committed any kind of serious criminal offence in your home country, then you almost certainly will not get a job at a reputable international school overseas. Most will require you to complete a criminal records check before you leave your home country but even if your school does not require this, you must still be upfront and honest about any criminal history you have. The ramifications for you can be severe if your school finds out about it later.
  5. Online: Clean up your online profile. Look at all of the social media channels you have, all of your blog posts, forum replies, comments and any other material you’ve submitted online. Also, remove anything that puts you in a bad light: international school managers are using ‘internet screening’ more and more often these days. Additionally, be very careful about who you connect with through social media, and never connect with current students. Whilst it’s important to keep in touch with your former students (through school-authorized alumni channels), you still have to be careful about what they can read about you, or from you, online. Your former students may be connected with your current students, and they can pass on information easily. You’ll also find that the student world of international teaching is just as small as the teacher world, and students in different international schools do communicate and connect with each other.

Q & A

I received some interesting responses about this in the Teachers in Thailand Facebook group:

“I do not agree with your point 2. We left SA because of a few of your nr 2 reasons and we soooo happy in Thailand!”

“Sometimes it’s impossible to resolve problems at home. Nonetheless you can be an effective teacher.”

I guess a balanced viewpoint on the issue is needed. A fresh start in a new country can offer you the chance to leave the past behind, and build a new future. My point, however, is that you should try to solve as many personal problems as you can before you move over. Avoid ‘burning bridges’ too – you never know when you might need to cross them again. 

Rule #3: Remember that you are a GUEST in a foreign country. Be respectful, and remember that for every action you undertake you will be scrutinized more excessively than the natives.

I’m not sure if being ‘scrutinized more than the natives” applies in EVERY country, but that’s certainly been my experience in Thailand and China – and that’s understandable. I am a foreigner. I have to be respectful of the local rules, culture and environment. 

I think it is important to realise that the world is an incredibly varied place. If you’ve lived your whole life in one country (as I did before moving out to Thailand in 2008) you’re going to find that your new home will be different in many ways. The most profound of these differences, however, is that people probably won’t even ‘think like you think’ on many issues. 

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Being understanding and accepting of the host culture and environment kind of comes with the job of being an international school teacher. If it gets too much for you, you can always move back home later (or to another country). 

Rule #4: Get as many qualifications as you can (and as much experience as you can) back home before moving out – it’ll all look good on your resume/CV and you’ll definitely use the skills and knowledge you’ve learnt.

International schools tend to have more difficulties recruiting specialists than, say, a domestic school in western country would. This, coupled with the fluid nature of international education (schools at different phases of development) means that you may be asked to teach subjects outside of your specialism. 

Before moving out, try to get skilled-up in anything pedagogical – accelerated learning techniques, Assessment for Learning, teaching ESL students in mainstream classrooms training, etc. The skills you learn on courses like these will definitely come-in handy when you teach overseas.

Online learning is, of course, great for this. There a large number of high-quality, inexpensive courses available on places like edX, Coursera and Udemy. You can also take my Classroom Management Fundamentals certificate course with UK Ed Academy.

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Some notable additions

“Make sure your social media accounts are private and that your profile pic is respectable. Recruiters often check you out on social media. Do an in-class or hybrid course. There is so much to be said for REAL PRACS with real students. Do an intro video if you can – either just introduction, or even better of you in the classroom showing your rapport with students. Be punctual for any interviews!” – Rose-Anne Turner, Founder of Destination TEFL

“Get someone to proofread your c.v and covering letter. The number of applications we get with poor punctuation and spelling mistakes…” – Kate Lloyd, Director of Studies at London School of English, Ukraine. Check out her website for teachers at What Kate and Kris Did.

“Expect things to go a bit wrong/unplanned from time to time but make sure you’re flexible and ok with that” – Stefan Hines, Secondary Science Teacher

Rule #5: Kinda linked to number 2: make sure you are going overseas for the right reasons – to inspire and help your students, to gain teaching experience and to gain a unique cultural experience. You’re not coming over to have a big, never-ending holiday, or to find a local boyfriend or girlfriend (although that last one might be a nice by-product).

This is quite an important one. If you don’t have the right mindset before you come out, then you could be in for quite a shock. 

International schools (and local public schools) tend to have very high professional standards. In addition to this, there often comes the added pressure of being expected to perform well. Thing about it: your school has most likely paid for your flight, immigration visa, work permit and maybe even housing and a competitive salary. You’ll be expected to measure-up. 

Have a holidays at holiday time. Experience the local culture and food all that good stuff, but remember that you must be just as professional at your job as you were back home. 

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Online Learning: A Risk-Assessment List for Teachers

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management, The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback and 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps)

Accompanying video:

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). 

100 Awesome Final Cover
Available on Amazon from 8th April 2020 onwards

‘The List’: What do we need to be aware of? 

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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?

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100 Awesome Online Learning Apps (Release date: 8th April on Amazon Globally)

Release date: Wednesday 8th April 2020 on Amazon Globally [ISBN 979-8629490937]

Great news!: My GAME-CHANGING book, 100 Awesome Online Learning Apps, is now LIVE on Amazon. Copies can be ordered here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086PSMYRN/

The book covers:

1. Not-so-obvious things to be aware of when doing online learning
2. A big list of 100 Awesome Apps with suggestions for their use in online learning

100 Awesome Final Cover

Book description

2020 marked a definitive year in the world of teaching. For the first time in history, teachers and schools all around the world were forced to quickly apply their skills to online learning as a result of widespread school closures in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. This book is timely and long-awaited, and meets the needs of educators who are required to deliver high-quality teaching via online apps and platforms. This book takes the reader through 100 tried-and-tested online learning platforms, with suggestions as to how each one could be used to enhance teaching or assessment. As a high-school science teacher and a Google Certified Educator himself, Mr Richard James Rogers has first-hand experience of using each platform and speaks from a wealth of involvement rather than from a lofty and disconnected position in elite academia. This is a practical book for those who want to make a difference in their students’ lives, no matter how volatile local circumstances may be.

About the Author

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Richard James Rogers is the globally acclaimed author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets that all High School Students Need to Know. As a Google Certified Educator, he utilizes a wide-variety of educational technology in his day job as an IBDP chemistry teacher at an international school in Bangkok, Thailand. Richard actively writes about all issues related to teaching at his weekly blog: richardjamesrogers.com

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Gender-Neutral Toilets in Schools: Some Research and Conclusions

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Last week I wrote a short blog post about 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.

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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, parents launched a petition to 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. 

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“An AMAZING book!”

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.

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That blog post earned 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):

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Another happy customer!

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. 

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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):

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Which areas would be on CCTV?

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 that less 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! 

Kyla is a sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Writing in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography (Volume 23 2016, Issue 7) she states:

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”

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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

An interesting paper from the University of Massachusetts, Amhurst [The Restroom Revolution: Unisex toilets and campus politics] gave the timeline leading up to the gender-segregated toilets we have today. Here’s a brief summary:

  • 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]. 
  • 1970s America: 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 of 2001, 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. 

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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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