Skills for Success

In my last position as head of skill-based learning for Key Stage 3 pupils, I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of qualities that I wanted all students to aspire towards having; qualities that would help them fulfill their academic potential, find good jobs, build solid relationships and lead happy lives.

Today, having been fortunate enough to teach children from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 5, I have developed a clear idea of exactly what skill-based learning should look like. I chose to name ‘Fishing Net’ skills as such, based on the old proverb:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” No doubt this resonates with teachers across the board – so often in the classroom it can feel like we’re constantly handing out fish to mob of hungry children. The idea of the ‘Fishing Net’ skills therefore, is that students have their own net, and they’re taught how to use it. They gain the confidence, independence and ability to think and act for themselves.

So what are they?

Freedom – Students must be able to ask questions, make mistakes and adopt creative learning approaches to suit their individual needs.

Independence – As independent learners, students will be able to follow instructions, organise themselves, meet task deadlines, find their way out of ‘stuck’ and take responsibility for their actions.

Self-belief – Our students need confidence in themselves in order to take risks, try new things, face challenges and grow.

Honesty – As reflective learners, students should be able to truthfully acknowledge their own strengths, weaknesses, wins and losses.

Investigate – Students should be able conduct research while considering the reliability and trustworthiness of their findings.

Notice – Through Mindfulness practices, students can increase their awareness of what’s happening around them, and inside of their minds, in the present moment. They’ll build up concentration and memory muscles, along with a greater ability to handle their moods and emotions.

Go for Goals – For some students, we need to inspire ambition. As reflective, independent learners, our students need to be able to set their own realistic but aspiration targets, and start working towards them.

 

Nurture – Students need to be taught to look after their minds and bodies, as well as the people and world around them. We need to ensure that they leave school with the skills and knowledge by which they can create a happy life.

Elasticity – Resilience is everything. We need our students to develop that bounce-back ability so that when things go wrong, they spring right back into action.

Team work – As collaborative learners, we need our students to practise kindness, empathy and understanding, putting this into action through team projects where they demonstrate sharing, listening, contributing and compromise.

Over time, Wellbeing and Mindfulness have organically become a central part of everything that the business offers; the frills to our skills.

If you’re interested in seeing what these skills look like ‘in the flesh,’ take a look at current learning experiences on offer. Click here if you’re interested in booking but unsure how it works or contact us to discuss options.

 

A broken system (and vegan hotdogs…)

Imagine a hot dog vendor, who has been going about his way, happily selling his product to happy customers for years on end. Let’s call him Jimmy. Then some shady guy comes along and threatens him. He says, “Jimmy – meat isn’t good for people. You have to start selling vegetarian sausages instead.” Jimmy complains – he knows that this man is a vegan, and doesn’t know anything about hot dogs – hasn’t even tasted one…but what can he do? This is a powerful guy and it wouldn’t take much for him to destroy his whole business, and with it his livelihood.

So now, every day, Jimmy has to walk five miles out of his way to get the particular brand of veggie sausages; he gets up two hours earlier and gets home two hours later. He misses his family – he argues with his wife and kids. Maybe it would be worth it if he was getting results, but no one wants these veggie sausages; people just don’t like them. The new boss doesn’t accept this. He just thinks Jimmy isn’t advertising them well enough, or that he’s not ‘making them right.’ Poor Jimmy is set ridiculous sales targets – targets that he would have struggled with even with business was good. His boss asks him to compile reports. He spends night and after night working on Excel, compiling data to show what he’s already explained…that people just aren’t buying. His boss thinks that these new incentives will force him to up his game and get results; it only leads to Jimmy feeling sad, lonely and unfulfilled.

Some way down the line, after so many failed targets, Jimmy actually begins to doubt himself. Was he ever really that good at selling hot dogs? Was he in the wrong line of work all along? Jimmy goes on for as long as he can, but in the end, he decides that he’s just not good enough anymore and he quits the job that he once loved. He feels like a failure.

***

Yes, I do have a thing for mafia movies. But this analogy sums up how I feel about the education system in the UK. Teachers here are leaving in droves. Why? Because just like Jimmy, they are subject to the whims of people who have little to no experience of what they actually do, or the children that they teach. It’s unbearably sad to see really incredible teachers leaving the profession as a result of this; even worse that so many leave blaming themselves, rather than the system that set them up to fail.

If you’re in the business of selling hot dogs, you need years of meat-eating experience behind you. If you’re going to dictate how every teacher teaches and every child learns across the country, then you need to have had years of experience working in state schools. Or at least have a group of advisers who work in state schools.

I really don’t think that’s asking too much.

Because let’s face it. If this doesn’t happen…if we are just at the mercy of one clueless politician after another…then the best we can hope for is job dissatisfaction. Our staff and our children deserve better.

The gift of intolerance in the classroom.

Out of all the things that can go wrong in a classroom, most teachers would agree that having your students engage in racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or generally bigoted comments, are generally among some of the worst…

Aside from maybe throwing a chair at your face, whilst directing one of these comments at you. That would be worse.

However, I’ve very recently come to the realisation that I’m looking at this from the wrong viewpoint, and that actually this is a gift – it’s something to embrace – an opportunity to inform and challenge opinions.

I teach in Yorkshire and I’ve lived here all of my life. In both primary and secondary education, the students I taught came from predominantly white, ‘working-class’ backgrounds.

I love Yorkshire folk. They’re profoundly proud of their roots. They can be so warm and friendly. Their dry sense of humour is second to none. Typically, though, they are often afraid of anything that’s different; they order chips on holiday and gasp when they see someone who is ‘black as ace o’ spades!’

When I say this, I am generalising mainly about the older generations – the parents of my students; those that grew up without the internet.

As for our young people, I find that an increasing number of students are becoming more open-minded and tolerant; thanks in part to schools trying to tackle this; and also as a result of the internet allowing them to explore cultures, places and people that they would never otherwise have seen. However, you only have to listen to a few conversations at break or lunchtime, to know that racism, homophobia, sexism and intolerance are still a massive problem. It’s almost an acceptable part of the culture in Yorkshire – like binge drinking – only it’s not acceptable and potentially just as harmful.

Luckily, when you do hear bigotry, hatred and ignorance, you can usually tell that these opinions are not the students’; they’re simply repeating what they’ve heard at home.

In lessons, pupils don’t tend to share these views. That’s because they’re told that racism and homophobia are wrong, and that incidents such as these will be treated ‘extremely seriously.’ Of course this is the right message to send – these incidents should be discouraged – but it also stops reasonable discussion and our ability to change minds.

Recently, in a year 7 lessons, my class were watching a clip that focused on a Muslim school boy from Bradford. Someone asked him, “Where are you from?” Before he could answer, one of my trickier pupils shouted out, “Africa!” I sent him outside and asked him to explain to me why what he had said wasn’t accurate; how it could be offensive; how the Muslim school boy was actually a lot like this pupil, only he knelt on a prayer mat 4 times a day.

If he had never spoke out, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

When it comes to comments of this nature, we need to take the time to have a conversation with our students. Considering what they might hear at home, or see shared on Facebook, and even more so in the current Brexit-Trump political climate; we have to explain WHY ignorance is unfair and inaccurate. In some cases, we need to give them the real facts and let them come to the right decision for themselves. There’s no use in belittling the views of children’s parents – that will only encourage them to ‘stick to their guns.’

It can be incredibly daunting for teachers to deal with these issues within school, and I’m sure that many do shy away from these discussions through fear of the response they might get.

But if WE don’t unpick the latest terrorist attack/mass shooting/refugee crisis, then someone else might. 

With so much fear-mongering and sensationalism in the press, it is even more crucial now that we give our students balanced, factual and unbiased information. For those who continue to hear messages of fear and hate at home, at least then we’ve given them the tools to question and challenge these views. To my mind, there’s no greater weapon against the problems of today, than having the ability to think for oneself.

 

Missing life skills: the real gaps in learning

Throughout the course of my teaching career, in both state primary and secondary settings based in the UK, I have spent a great deal of time – as I’m sure many have – discussing levels; their pros and cons for both students and staff.

My main concern with the ‘best fit’ leveling approach was that teachers often felt pressurized to ‘mark positively’ and move students up, the results being not just a reflection of student’s effort and ability, but also demonstrative of their own teaching ability and the school overall (and even in some places now directly linked to salary.) The outcome of this was that lessons were often taught at break-neck speed and children who didn’t secure skills/concepts as quickly as their classmates would be left with fundamental gaps in their learning.

From 2016, the government sought to alleviate this problem by scrapping levels altogether and allowing schools to create their own assessment criteria. ‘Best Fit’ was no more; now we’re underachieving, on target, or overachieving. This is definitely a step in the right direction, it’s just a crying shame that the government didn’t use this opportunity to bring some cohesion to this already disjointed system – an issue for another time…

So are we all better off without the levels? The jury’s still out.

What is clear is that there remain a huge number of students with gaps not only in their academic attainment, but also in the fundamental skill-set needed for successful learning and life after education. I’m talking about concepts like awareness, communication, resilience, independence: the tools needed to foster good relationships, make good choices and cope when things don’t go your way. These are the real ‘gaps’ in learning.

For the most part, we don’t measure or assess or even teach these vital life skills. We’re just too busy writing up pupil progress data to think deeply about how we can encourage little Johnny to stop seeing himself as a failure, or support Caroline as you watch her social awkwardness spiral into isolation and anxiety disorder.

I know that some will argue we are teachers, not therapists – that this is out of our remit. I think that’s crap. If you teach, you want the best for your students; you want them to have a good future once they’ve left you.

What’s the point in preparing them for a test but leaving them unable to cope with life?


And I speak from experience. I left school as an extremely successful student – academically successful – yet I was paralysed by a total lack of social confidence. My reports home always commented that I was quiet and needed to put my hand up more, but this was my only instruction. As I made progressed academically, I regressed socially. My teachers and I accepted my ‘shyness’ and I upheld my self-belief that I was a ‘freak’; a ‘weak, shy, pathetic person’, who would never be able to speak publicly or do anything that required real confidence.

Let me be clear – I do not blame my teachers for this at all, or my parents. I isolated myself and never spoke about my problems. I also think that the culture in schools twenty years ago had much more of an academic focus – there’s much more onus on schools today to provide pastoral care and look after the ‘whole’ child. 

As my story goes, my pattern of avoidance continued throughout college, university and well into my twenties. It wasn’t until I was 25, sad and tired of so many missed opportunities, that I bravely decided to embark upon a PGCE in Secondary History teaching; a decision which forced me to confront the things that I have spent my life running away from.

Battling intensely low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, it wasn’t until I’d had a course of cognitive behaviour therapy, read a library of self-help books and watched hundreds of TED talks, that I began to see the blue sky on the horizon.  I learnt that my thoughts could set me free, and that avoiding painful situations would only lead to more pain down the line. So now, whilst I wouldn’t describe myself as a social butterfly, I am for the most part just as anxious as the next person and probably more confident than most. I regularly push myself to do things that scare me, nerves and all, using a Mindfulness-based approach.

It all seems so simple and easy written down – in reality, there were so many times when it felt like I was surrounded by darkness; like there was no hope. Today, it’s the memory of this darkness that motivates me to be the teacher that I never had to others; to notice, support, guide and challenge.


For the generation of children being taught right now, these skills are even more important. The advent of iphones and ipads have resulted in many children being more at home tapping on screens than speaking out loud. Their communication skills just aren’t getting the same workout that they would from having real face-to-face social interaction. This, combined with the government’s obsession with exam testing, funding cuts, the overstretched nature of support services, and the number of children bringing problems from home into school, mean that the explicit teaching of these skills is even more vital.

I struggled through my problems – and eventually, I triumphed. But it was such a struggle. And I don’t want that battle for our children. I want them to learn, in school, to be resilient and hopeful and kind and thoughtful. I want them to learn to embrace challenges rather than running away from them; to work with people who aren’t just like them and be okay with it; to develop their own strategies of solving problems before asking someone ‘smarter’ to work it out for them.

The government has finally begun to tackle the gaps in academic learning, but it looks like it will be up to us to ensure that our students leave us knowing more than how to pass an exam.

It is up to us to ensure that our young people are given the toolkit needed for a happy, successful life after school, no matter what life throws at them.