I’m Now a Qualified Forest School Practitioner!

After a year-long course, which both inspired and challenged me to levels previously unknown, I heard this week that I passed my Level 3 Forest School instructor qualification. I’m incredibly proud of this because not only did it involve a gargantuan amount of work, but the practical element of the course i.e. sawing, carving, bill-hooking, setting fires etc. was worlds out of my skill-set and comfort zone.

You’d be forgiven for asking: why would I even sign up for such a course?

It all comes back to wellbeing, of course!

I’ll summarise in the following points:

  1. In the last few years, there’s been more and more research into the benefits of being outdoors in terms of our wellbeing. We’re talking changes in blood pressure, cortisol levels, blood sugar and more. I’m butchering the data here – if you’d like to read the fine-tuned details, click here.
  2. After numerous camping trips (and lots of arm twisting) I’d come to realise that active relaxation – whereby you’re focused on the essential actions of putting up a tent, cooking your dinner, building and lighting a fire – is actually an active form of meditation. I found myself ‘switching off’ and relaxing almost immediately, whereas usually, it takes me a while to stop thinking about my ‘to do’ list.
  3. Having forgotten most of what I’d learned as a former Girl Guide, I was curious – about trees, plants, animals, weather and the natural world in general. So too were the children I taught, curious and keen to know more. Curiosity causes us to look more closely, listen more intently; it lends itself perfectly to mindfulness.
  4. I noted myself that time spent outdoors, being curious and mindful, resulting in a natural increase in gratitude, appreciation and ease; not just for nature, but for everything.girl nature

With the course now completed and a shelter-building day already under my belt, I am more convinced than ever as to the benefits of Forest School practice (and just getting outside in general) in terms of improving mental health.

Now, I’m all about finding opportunities to take mindfulness outdoors, in order to increase curiosity, gratitude and mindfulness practice itself.

I’m equally keen to engage children in active meditation through tasks that require their attention to be in one place at a time (i.e. carving, making, crafting etc.)

But if all of this means very little to you right now, that’s the only advice I’m going to give you: to get outside, kids in tow if you have them.

And look, hear, touch, smell, feel the natural world around you.

That’s a better place than any to start.


Interested in some outdoorsy Mindfulness? Looking to book a Forest School Shelter-Building day? Call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to check options and availability.

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.

 

Brave new world: Act II (a plan is formed)

Since September, I’ve been earning my money through supply teaching in local primary schools. While I was nervous at first, I quickly realised that this was actually a fantastic opportunity for me to continue enjoying the best bits of teaching while dropping the worst. Teaching spontaneously like this – keeping students that I’ve only just met happy and engaged, well behaved, learning – has definitely allowed me to add to my own skill-set. Every day when I enter the classroom, I set myself the secret challenge of being the best supply teacher the children have ever seen. I make it my mission to make these children feel good about themselves. This doesn’t always work – supply teaching isn’t without it’s challenges – but like we tell the children, when we reach for the moon, we land among stars even if we miss.

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One upsetting aspect of leaving your job is that you can no longer use ‘marking books’ as a legitimate reason to avoid the gym.

I had thought that I might have a problem with traipsing to different schools where I didn’t know anyone, but actually I’ve found it fascinating to visit schools that are vastly different in the makeup of their students, staff and approaches. When you have a permanent job in school, you can become very insular and set in your ways. Yet, we can learn so much from seeing the way things are handled in other schools.

Even where schools appear to be very different, they often have much in common. Right from the bustling, multi-cultural inner-city academies, to the leafy lane one-form entry religious schools; teachers gripe about Ofsted, excessive workload, student behaviour, learning and attitudes. Across the board, many staff feel that they have to cram in curriculum content in a series of fast-paced, prescriptive lessons, without any real time to focus on other things that should matter just as much.

As a passionate facilitator of skill-based learning, I recognise that children everywhere are being pushed academically by some fantastic teachers and support staff; but that their life-skills have been mostly forgotten. At best, words like collaboration, communication and confidence are mentioned at a shallow level. At worst, they are unheard of within the school dialogue. Even the truly brilliant members of teaching staff and leadership are often just too busy trying to keep up with ‘aspiration data targets’ to truly consider how best to instil an ethos of independent learning and resilience throughout their class or school.

In the current educational climate, anything that isn’t measurable in the form of a data spreadsheet or written exam, just isn’t a priority. So this is where I plan to come in.

Though I have often been prone to bouts of insecurity, I have never wavered on my decision to leave my job and ‘go it alone.’ Even more so, I am certain that I can use my own knowledge and skills more effectively under my own banner, and pass these on to a much broader community of students and staff. For this reason,  this month I officially registered ‘Skills with Frills Education Ltd.’ I plan to launch in January, 2018, offering my teaching services to schools within Yorkshire, promoting my newly-created ‘Fishing Net’ skills.

What we need to consider as educators is that not only do we have a duty to develop the whole-child alongside their academic abilities; but also that if we were to inspire qualities such as resilience, independence and communication within our students, then they would no doubt reap academic benefits alongside an abundance of others.

 

QUICK READ: Top 5 tips to build resilience in the classroom

  1. Teach it! So many of us mope into the Staff room and complain about how easily our students give up/quit/don’t even try (my past-self included) without stopping to ask if anyone has ever spoken to them about what resilience is and why we need it, especially when it concerns children who lack positive role models at home. Many Primary Schools and some Secondary School leaders are beginning see the value of a ‘Growth Mind-set’ approach and with this, the need to explicitly teach resilience through models such as ‘the learning pit.’ Whatever age you teach and however you discuss this, it’s important to remind students that fear, difficultly and struggle go hand-in-hand with challenge and growth, and that ‘the only way out is through.’
  2. Give kids an ‘out’ so that they can make a mistake. If, for example, you are drawing posters and you’re faced with a child who repeatedly rips up their work because they ‘don’t think it’s good enough’, I tell them that they can do this only once and then they must use the mistake and make it part of their work.
  3. Instil an ethos of Independent Learning. I like to have the 5 Bs posters on the wall which represent a series of things that students need to do before shouting, “Miss!” These are: Brain, Book, Board, Buddy, and Boss. “Ask three before me,” is something that we say a lot too and the children at KS2/3-age respond really well to this. Often, students will tell me that they ‘don’t get it’ before they’ve even read the task sheet, or because they didn’t listen to the instructions. Instead, direct them to their classmates – this saves you from repeating yourself and it benefits the child who is explaining as they have to break this down into simple terms.
  4. Sometimes you need to refuse help. Harsh as this sounds, some children (especially SEN or low-ability pupils) have been allowed to become totally dependent on adults – they’ve come to understand that if they ask for it, someone else will tell them what to do and even do it for them. This approach only ensures that they’ll never learn to think for themselves or believe that they are capable of anything on their own; that’s simply not good enough. If I think it’s a moment of ‘learned helplessness,’ I might say, “I’m afraid I can’t help you with this one because I know you can do this…” Depending on the student/day/topic/your relationship, you may use a firm tone to reinforce this, ensuring that the student knows what the exact consequences of non-compliance will be; or you might adopt a more humorous, playful tone. Sadly, this is often something that you might only learn after the student has flipped a table over. This is where your resilience comes into play!
  5. Reward resilience. Whether it is stamps in planners, an email to their form tutor or even a quick call or postcard home, praise students who persevere through problems and don’t give in. It doesn’t matter whether the actual work/team project/presentation looks like a dog’s dinner; you’re specifically praising their effort and resilience, rather than their ability, reinforcing their self-image as someone who doesn’t give in when things are tough and achieves good results through hard work.

 

At the end of the day, week or term? Make that positive call home!

Before any term ends, as you see your colleagues Facebook status’ (and possibly your own?!) begin to eagerly count down the number of ‘get ups’ left until the Summer break, we all begin to lower our expectations a little.

Whether it’s wrong or right, we just do.  We’re really, really tired.

And so are the kids. Behaviour can be really tricky to manage, particularly if you’re not as flexible with your last week expectations as your students think you should be. But you don’t want to spend your last week running around after kids and arranging meetings with Heads of Year. So Don’t!

Instead, focus on the really positive behaviour in these last days and make some phone calls home.

Even better, rather than calling up about the kids who always misbehave apart from that one time it was a perfect topic, perfect day, their horrid friend wasn’t there and you bribed them with Snickers bar (I am a big fan of these phone calls at other times – they really help!); instead, call home about the average Joe who has plodded along all year long nicely, and although never sensational, has always maintained their manners and hasn’t argued even once about sitting next to that girl that everyone suspects has knits.

Selfishly, this will make you feel amazing.

Parents, carers and relatives love to get these calls and the way they gush over the phone and express genuine thanks that you’ve taken the time to call them…well it will leave you feeling more satisfied that a TGI’s Jack Daniel’s double bacon cheeseburger with sweet potato fries and mayo. (You might feel so good that you want to treat yourself to one of these afterwards – good people deserve good food.)

At this time of year, it’s an even better feeling. You’re leaving both the parents and children with a lovely feeling as their school year ends; making them happy and proud; showing them that their teachers notice and care for them; and no doubt, lessening that ‘back to school dread’ a little too when it comes around.

 

Teaching kids to ‘opt in’ and just try!

People often say that children are fearless.

They climb high trees; they rugby tackle each other with zero concern for body parts; they stand up for themselves and their friends in the face of authority; and often, to the distress of their parents, they say exactly what’s on their mind (or their parents minds!) with devastating honesty.

This is what people say.

And in many respects they’re right. Many children, especially younger children and possibly more so with boys, can be incredibly brave and courageous, free from the chains of responsibility, worries and often naïve to the risks.

From my experience though, and I’ve seen this at both primary and secondary level, the opposite is becoming increasingly true. Our young people are scared, anxious and increasingly, unwilling to even ‘try’.

When I taught year 6 students, it caused me a great deal of upset to see the negative impact of exam pressure on 9 to 11 year olds, not to mention those in the year groups below who weren’t much better off. These children have been failed. Failed by a broken system of inaccurate, inconsistent tests; farcical target grades that were completely detached from actual abilities; desperate teachers and school leaders forced to fill every part of the school day with panicky SATs booster sessions. I can’t count the number of children I saw having physical symptoms of anxiety, including issues of self-harm and panic attacks. And this only worsened at secondary when homework, hormones and social media really kick in.

I don’t think we can blame this lack of ‘willingness’ and resilience entirely on any one thing. I’m not even sure that this is a new thing really. Perhaps children have always been terrified to try new things, but discipline being much stricter from both school and home ‘way back when’, maybe children just did as they were told because the alternative was more terrifying.

Opting out just wasn’t an option whereas now, for many, it clearly is. In many schools and educational settings, we are accepting ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’ far too often. I’m not advising that we throw shy children into isolation when they are too terrified to speak in a presentation, but there should be an expectation that they will try. Even with a child child who is incredibly shy/socially awkward (like I was); if you coach them and their classmates coach them; give them extra time to practise; make them aware of speaking techniques to help with nerves and confidence; promise individual rewards for trying something new; then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand that they at least say one sentence in their group presentation to their own form. 

I have been in the exact situation described here. After several confrontations with the pupil in question and a letter from home demanding that this boy wasn’t made to present because he really didn’t want to, it was suggested to me by a member of senior staff that I “just let it go” because “we can’t force children to speak!” I’ll also add that the pupil in question didn’t appear to be especially anxious as he often answered questions in class and had no problem in back-chatting at any given opportunity.

It wasn’t about this boy getting away without doing something that he’d been asked to; it was about not letting him let fear stop him from doing something that I absolutely knew he was capable of, despite his parents and school leaders facilitating this avoidance. I’m proud to say that I didn’t back down, and this boy presented on three occasions following this one, ending the year with more confidence than he started.

What kind of teacher would I be if I just let children ‘wimp out’ of everything that scared them?

If I let them strengthen their fears and worries, taking them into their further studies and jobs after school, eventually instilling the same fears and worries in their own children?

Moreover, why aren’t some parents more willing to suffer the short-term upset of their children at home, in order to help them find long-term confidence and happiness?

While I do find the bulk of parents are incredibly supportive, and simply want the best for their offspring; I’ve also come across a growing number who will march angrily into school to demand that their child is allowed to sit next to their friend because they don’t like the person they’re with; that their child is excluded from a presentation/class assembly because they don’t like presentations; that their child isn’t expected to take part in Sport Day because they don’t like PE; that their child isn’t expected to wear a certain part of school uniform because they don’t like the way their legs look in their trousers. Seriously?

I know that many of these parents might have a battle on their hands at home, and often just don’t want to see their child upset and unhappy, but isn’t part of life sometimes doing things that you don’t want to do? Isn’t it true that so often once we’ve faced our fears, we can’t believe we were so worried in the first place? Aren’t these the richest experiences, when we often realise that we were stronger and braver than we ever believed?

If we always allow young people to ‘opt out’, then ultimately, the result is that they miss out.

For my part, I will continue to challenge the students in my care, to take those teeny tiny steps at first outside of their comfort zones until they are ready to take great, whopping leaps into adventure, challenge and success.

There’s nothing better as a teacher than seeing a child conquer something that they’re afraid of, and seeing the pride on their face when they’ve accomplished something that they thought near-impossible. They physically glow with self-belief. They step out of the shoes of who they were and into the shoes of who they can become. No child should be robbed of that opportunity just because it’s too hard or upsetting to deal with.

When I teach, I try to instil an ethos of just showing up; seeing where that mistake takes you in your work; just starting and seeing where momentum takes you; just trying. I also tell my students about anything that I’ve tried or done that’s scary either within or outside of school. We talk about nerves and anxiety, what the physical symptoms look and feel like that; what they can do to work with these nerves rather than against. I want them to know that they are not abnormal because their heart is beating out of their chest when they have to speak in front of their peers. No one ever did this for me when I was experiencing near-panic attacks at school, and the feeling that everyone else was calm as a cucumber while I was just a nervous ‘freak’ only worsened my problem and my will to avoid it.

Recently, I came across a great TED talk and ‘social movement’ based on facing your fears. Michelle Poler’s ‘100 Days without Fear’ does exactly what it says on the tin: she challenges herself in 100 different ways, to face things that terrify her. Why not try something similar with our students? I wonder what results we would get if we get if our homework tasks were about stepping out of your comfort zone (perhaps with adult supervision to avoid a lawsuit!)

For many of our young people in and out of school, the world can seem like a very scary place. There’s no wonder that many of them retreat into a bubble of X-Box or Netflix binges and social media, rather than forcing themselves to do horrible, scary things outside. It’s our duty though as educators, to move with the times and be innovative in the ways that we teach courage and resilience. Perhaps if we can incorporate some of the photo bragging that seems prevalent on social media sites, we might even encourage children to ‘brag’ about something really worthwhile?

 

 

Teachers: are you paying attention to your own body language?

Body language: It’s one of those things that you learn about when you’re mid-way through teacher-training, in between crying over your lesson reviews, future plans and endless piles of marking. And while we all find it very interesting, for many staff, it’s often one of those things that we just never make time to come back to and review.

At least, not in respect to ourselves.

We’re absolute pros at analysing, commenting on and correcting the body language of our students. I can tell you what pupils X, Y and Z will be doing in each of my classes, depending on the time of day and topic covered, before they even know themselves they’re going to do it. Like many, I even have a bag of tricks complete with stress balls, doodle pads and blue tack for some of my more attentionally-challenged students.

And I know I’m not alone. For many teachers, assessing body language of pupils is a fundamental aspect of teaching a good lesson. Aside from a way of maintaining listening, it’s incredibly useful in assessing the mood of the class, their levels of interest/curiosity in the topic and task, and of course, actually judging whether you’ve pitched the lesson right and they’re actually going to be able to understand and complete what you’re asking of them.

But what about our own body language? Personally, I think I did have to put a lot of thought into my own body language when I started out, mainly because I was a nervous wreck. By the end of my PGCE year, I could barely hold a conversation without having a panic attack – I was fully in the midst of ‘Social Anxiety’ and seriously re-considering if teaching was really the right vocation for a frail little flower like me. But after a course of CBT(Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), I was willing to think of body language as something that I actually had control over. More importantly, I realised that just as I would tend to think and feel a certain way, and unconsciously hold my body in a way that demonstrated and enhanced this feeling; equally, I could adopt a positive stance and hold my body in a confident position, and actually trick my brain into feeling the positive emotions associated with this.

This TED talk is one of my favourites – I’ve watched it again and again, especially if I’m feeling a little apprehensive about an upcoming meeting or presentation. Amy Cuddy completely reinforces the idea that you can control and use your body language to ‘fake it until you become it.’

As she reports, her team have tested people in a lab, asking them to strike either low-power poses or high-power poses for 2 minutes, before giving them a series of tasks to complete. Remarkably, her results showed that the power posers averaged a 20% chemical increase in testosterone as well as a 25% cortisol drop. On the contrary, the low-power posers, saw a testosterone drop of 10% and an increase in cortisol of 15%. As a social anxious teacher, facing ‘the mob’ in the classroom along with a series of fairly stressful adult-interactions, I really found this information to be invaluable.

As Amy says, this information would probably prove most useful to people in ‘threat situations’ like when you’re about to give a presentation, or go to a job interview.  Whether facing difficult classes, unpleasant conversations with staff, parents or school leaders, or giving presentations to adults, for many school staff, ‘threat situations’ can be a regular part of school life. And whilst I prefer to think of them as ‘charm challenges’ rather than ‘threat situations’ myself, a good high-power pose certainly doesn’t hurt either way (I’d just suggest doing the ‘Wonder Woman’ in the disabled loo to avoid strange looks!)

For me, when I’m lined up on ‘death row’ at the front of staff INSET training in the hall, waiting to speak to a sea of tired, cynical faces, I just do a quick body-scan and ensure that I’m sitting like I’m a really relaxed, confident person. And I’ve got to say, it really works for me in this situation, and I feel much less nervous, particularly at the beginning of the presentation which is when the real anxiety always used to hit; I loosen up much more quickly and find my body language really opens up and flows throughout; I actually genuinely enjoy presenting to adults much more than I did previously, something that I previously would have never thought possible.

In a classroom situation, it’s a little different. Though there are peaks and dips throughout the lesson depending on if you’re speaking to one student, one rebellious student, lots of students, or lots of rebellious students… really, you need some solid body-language skills to get you through the lesson.

Thankfully, Ofsted have long-since moved away from the idea that teachers has to be some kind of loud, tap-dancing narcissist in order to get a good lesson grading, allowing the more introverted  of us to rely on exciting planning and solid behaviour management strategies instead. But still, researchers argue that over 90% of our communication is apparently based on non-verbals; thus whether you’re naturally a lion tamer or shrinking violet, you can’t afford to ignore this aspect of your teaching if you want engaged, well-behaved pupils.

So whether you’re a struggling teacher in training or an experienced staff member facing the toughest class of your career; or anyone, in any profession or role that deal with these ‘charm challenges’ on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to take half an hour out of your day to watch this TED talk and have a really good think about your body language.

Ask yourself – are you consciously controlling your posture/expressions/movement? Are you using your body effectively to support successful teaching? Does your body language help you to manage behaviour, or does it send mixed messages? Does it encourage interest in the lesson, or boredom?

Be honest – if you were one of your own students, would you be one of the engaged or the disengaged? If your school has any capacity to film lessons and watch them back (it only needs to be you watching!) this is a fantastic way to take note of what your body is unconsciously doing, albeit horrifying when you hear your voice/see your hair from the back/realise that you say ‘Okaaayyyyy’ every few minutes like a deranged parrot.

To this day, I swear that the reason I ended up doing A levels and eventually a degree in History, despite being much better at other subjects, was the passion and curiosity instilled in me by my high-school History teacher. That man had crazy hair and was constantly scratching his privates; but he also leapt – physically leapt– around the room with excitement for his subject. And as a result, my rather attention-challenged mind soaked up every single word that he said.

Ultimately, if you want your students, colleagues and people to listen to the words coming out of your mouth, then you need to have a serious think about the message your body is sending out as well. 

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.

 

PSHE – The most undervalued subject in the curriculum

PSHE (Personal Social, Health and Economic Education) has a certain reputation in most secondary schools as being the subject that you read up on 5 minutes before the lesson, right before you ‘wing it’ in front of a room full of unenthusiastic students. Despite it being taught by form tutors, and often being the only lesson that staff have with their own tutor group, a good chunk of teachers – though not all by any means – fail to see the value of the subject, or perhaps don’t value it enough to put anything into it.

I think this is crazy.

Within both primary and secondary schools, teachers are never any one thing on one day – we wear many hats, to suit different subjects, students and occasions. Out of all of these roles, I consider ‘Form Tutor’ to be one of the most valuable and rewarding, and PSHE is a huge part of that.

As a primary teacher, I journeyed every day through the whole curriculum with my students. As such, there were countless opportunities to develop their talents as successful learners, but also remind them of the need to be honest, kind and thoughtful individuals. As a form tutor in secondary however, I saw my tutor group for only 20 minutes registration – 20 minutes that included a myriad of admin tasks, social work and pushing whatever subject was on the hit list that week. There wasn’t the time to breathe, let alone discuss anything important with any real depth.

PSHE was my one hour a week, when I was really able to teach my tutor group, and impart knowledge that really mattered –puberty and sex education, drugs and alcohol awareness, internet and social media safety, healthy lifestyles, using money wisely, resolving conflict and so much more. These topics are incredibly important.

For the most part they’re underpinned with powerful messages about persevering through tough times, being true to your own sense of right and wrong, standing up for yourself and others, feeling good about yourself without comparing yourself to others, and being safe by making good choices in a variety of situations.

For my own part, I never ‘winged it’ in PSHE and would often spend a good half an hour altering planned lessons each week, adding a few clips from ‘YouTube’ or writing ‘agony aunt’ columns based on real-life school situations, to make these messages as relevant and effective as they deserve to be. I’ve often being told that ‘you get out, what you put in’ and for the most part, my tutor group always seemed to enjoy our lessons together and were a really decent group of young people.

Whilst you can’t make their decisions for your students outside of school, if you teach PSHE well, at least you know that they’re informed about the important stuff –  what happens to your body if you happen to drink a lot of alcohol; the ways in which your life would change if you became pregnant in your teens; the benefits of eating good food and exercising; and why you shouldn’t worry if you feel like crap/spotty/moody, because secretly, everyone else at your age does and it’s just hormones.

Think about the impact that information like this could have on the choices that a young person makes as they grow.

If you’re doing it right, your tutor group is very much like a little family, within the extended family of school. Even when your birds have flown the nest, you want to feel that you’ve done all you could to allow them to make good choices and lead happy lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Are we blaming students for things they haven’t been taught?

I love teachers – we work so hard, we care so much – but most of us moan constantly. We moan about lesson planning and preparation. We moan about ‘bad lessons’ and follow-up consequences. We moan about marking and assessment data capture. We moan about parents meetings and open evenings. We moan about not doing enough trips and about having to complete risk assessments when we do. We moan about the government, and Ofsted. Admittedly, it’s hard to argue with the last one.

Sadly, one of the main causes of complaint for teachers, are the children we teach – their attitude; their behaviour; their work, or lack of it; their complete lack of enthusiasm despite our incredible planning; their interactions with classmates; their lack of common sense; their foul language; their need for attention; their disrespect for those who clearly should be respected. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself at times – certain students drive me crazy!

I’m not saying that we don’t have valid complaints, but perhaps we need to remember – children aren’t paid to come to school – it isn’t their choice.  It’s the law. From some student’s point of view, there is little benefit in listening and learning and being all-round good people, other than us telling them that this ‘the right thing to do.’

Moreover, have they even been taught or shown the skills and qualities that we expect them to use?

We huff and puff because ‘half of the children class 8 have the attention span of a fruit-fly’; but has anyone ever spoken to them about how they can notice their own concentration levels or taught them how to build up these muscles?

Herein lies the problem: we’re assuming that children know how to do things that they don’t, then repeatedly blaming them for doing the wrong thing.

We may as well just bang our heads against a wall. And theirs.

We’re wearing ourselves out and even worse, building resentment between ourselves and our students. Imagine if no one had ever taught you to tie your shoe laces, but complained about how ridiculous it was that you were constantly tripping up? You’d soon become sick of hearing their complaints.

After a particularly challenging morning, when the staff room ranting and raving really gets going, you might start to hear ‘In my day…’ from some of the older teachers. This is usually my cue to leave. I have no doubt that thirty years ago, children arrived at school armed with manners, respect, the ability to tell the time and a heavy sense of fear; but this just isn’t the case in many schools now and constantly harping back to this is pointless and counterproductive. While children cannot choose whether to come to school or not, we did. And we’re paid to teach the children of 2017 – not the children of 1987.

Children today are much more complicated that the generations before them. They’ve grown up in a world with information at their fingertips. In many children, this facilitates curiosity, creativity, connection and ambition. At the same time, our children can be overstimulated, resulting in shortened attention spans, isolated socially and disconnected from reality. Anxiety and depression are a huge problem for today’s youth. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just give up on them – that we teach them what really matters.

I realise here that there is a need for parental responsibility. We need parents to be reading with children at home; teaching them to tell the time; asking and answering questions; supporting children in completing homework; encouraging a sense of respect towards others and resilience through difficulty. Many parents do this, and their children reap the rewards. Sadly, these things just aren’t happening for a growing number of children. Many parents themselves are exhausted through their own work-life balance pressures resort to the iPad babysitter; some parents don’t feel confident or able to help with homework ( who can really keep up with methods you’re supposed to use in maths when many schools change them every term?); some parents just don’t have the life-skills themselves to pass these down to their children; and a small handful just don’t care. Do their children not deserve the same chances in life?

Regardless of the reasons, our students’ personalities, behaviours and needs have changed, and so we must change with them.

We need to teach life-skills like independent learning in the same way we might teach column addition – initially break down the what, why and how; show children the steps to success; practise and repeat throughout each year; judge and reflect on our progress until the skill is secure. Imagine if we taught life-skills like they were in the SATs; imagine the kind of thinking that we would create in our classrooms.

If you’re keen to find out more about exactly what these skills are, take a look at my entry on FISHING NET skills.