Creating a culture of kindness in your classroom

When you’ve been teaching for a few years, you’re bound to come across a class or three that threaten to drive you to madness; not necessarily because they don’t work hard or don’t behave well, but more often than not, because they just can’t get along with each other. Personally, I’ve experienced this in primary and secondary teaching; in small special needs groups of 6 students; in individual classes and in numerous classes over a year group. When your students display a distinct lack of patience, empathy or kindness; when they’re ‘all up in each other’s business’ and salivating at the thought of getting a classmate in trouble, what do you do? You have to explicitly encourage kindness.

Remember a while back I wrote about blaming students for skills they hadn’t even been taught or shown? Sad as it is, we can’t take it for granted that children have had kindness taught or modeled at home.

You do this for your students, because however high-flying a child may be academically, if they’re selfish and cruel then they’re going to struggle to find happiness in later life. You also do it for your own sanity. The daily wear and tear of dealing with constant squabbling and bickering can be soul-destroying for even the most positive teachers, and it has a massive impact on the pace of learning and attitudes in your classroom.

Really, I think the foundation blocks of this need to be – and usually are – laid in early education and then reiterated in secondary education. Although there are ways around it, teenagers are harder to get through to and you just can’t be anywhere near as ‘cheesy’ if you’re trying to encourage year 9 to be kind, as you can with year 3.   Kindness

In secondary teaching, I found that short, sharp chunks thrown into other subjects or tutor time served well as reminders to be good people.

Following a fantastic assembly about ‘Random Act of Kindness,’ I was inspired to buy Danny Wallace’s book of the same name, and used this to regularly inspire or at least remind my form of practical ways that they could be kind towards others.

It’s a great book to dip in and out of once a week, and make a suggestion like, ‘swap places behind you in a queue,’ ‘share your lunch with someone’ or ‘give someone a genuine complement.’ Even if the ideas aren’t acted upon, at least there’s a dialogue in the classroom which is focused on helping others. Let’s face it: teenagers can be a pretty miserable and self-absorbed lot so it won’t do them any harm to consider other people for a couple of minutes and take the focus away from themselves.

One of the rather brilliant secondary teacher at my last school took this a step further. She asked children in her tutor group to fill in slips with their name and the act of kindness that they completed, and then picked out a name like a raffle every week and awarded them a little prize. I think she’s really onto something here. In many of the primaries I’ve visited, raffle tickets are awarded for good behaviour, along with house points and individual awards. It would take no extra effort, just a little specific language, to really praise acts of kindness along with good effort and behaviour.

“Well done Daniel! Your name is going into the raffle now because I heard that when Jacob and Elkie were arguing, you tried really hard to resolve this.” 

“Amy – you’ve earned a point for your house because you chose to ignore Will tapping the ruler next to you and didn’t interrupt your learning by telling tales.”

“Everyone on the Red table gains a team point because although they did have a difference of opinion, they managed to listen to each other and sort this out without any adult help, so they didn’t waste any learning time!”

Furthermore, overt references to kindness and awareness of others should be part of a whole-school ethos and not simply the responsibility of the class teacher. I was in a junior school not long ago which held a termly ‘positive psychology’ week. Each class throughout school had their own activities to complete and half an hour at the end of each day to do this – year 5 for example, had booklets for each child in the class that were passed to all classmates who wrote specific, positive comments about that person. Activities from all classes were then shared in a positive psychology assembly in front of parents.

Another primary school I know has embedded ‘Building Learning Power’ in to the teaching and rewards system of their school. Every Friday, students would vote for two students in their class who had shown certain learning skills, including that of effective listening, empathy and collaboration, qualities linked to kindness. It was lovely to see children, especially the youngest, reading out such specific praise about their classmates. Additionally, because this was something that happened weekly, and because it came from the children rather than the adults, noticing and describing things your classmates had done well was just part of the school code.

When all is said and done, it’s remarkably easy to create a culture of warmth and kindness in your classroom and school. This will spare you stress, save you time and hopefully foster a sense of care, support and encouragement between your students.

Teacher Wellbeing: Mindfulness over multi-tasking

I’ve often read that one of the keys to mindfulness, and indeed happiness, is to do one thing and one time. Pure focus and concentration on that one thing. 

Still…I find it so unbelievable hard to put this into practice.

It’s often joked about that women are used to multitasking; in some ways, ‘we’ almost hold it over men and laugh at them, because they can’t do three things at once like us. In the teaching community, many of us wear our multitasking abilities like a badge of pride, bragging and moaning at the same time about how much we’ve done by 9AM and how much more we have to do.

Yes, we get an unbelievable amount done… but is it good for us? I doubt it.

Teachers often complain that ‘kids these days’ have 3 minute attention spans; that they’re overstimulated by technology. Yet, I know so many teachers that tell me that they can’t get through a TV show without thinking about their ‘to do’ list; that they wake up at 3AM thinking about seating plans and checking emails on their phone; that are continuously accused of ‘being somewhere else’ even when they’re in the room.

There’s no wonder that many people say it takes them a couple of weeks into summer before they can even calm down and relax.

Summer holidays though are a great opportunity to embrace the art of doing just one thing; to sit and read a book outside, with the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, and the noises of holidays all around you.  There are endless opportunities to practise mindfulness – to listen, touch, taste, smell, see and feel all the things that are normally there, but aren’t normally acknowledged because your mind is somewhere else – to exist in the present moment.

Throughout my holiday, I’m going to strive to pay attention as much as possible, and just do one thing at a time. This is going to mean breaking a few bad habits and I don’t expect it be to an entirely smooth ride, but I’ll do my best, safe in the knowledge that my brain really needs a holiday too. She’s had a really hard year. She really deserves to truly relax.

Editor’s update (20.11.17): Since writing this post, I’ve read a number of books about Mindfulness and watched some fascinating talks promoting it’s scientifically-proven benefits. As a result, I’m now signed up to a course with the British Institute of Mindfulness in January 2018, so that I can pass this information onto my students. The more I’ve learnt about this topic, the more I’ve become convinced of the need for it to be taught as a means of battling the anxiety and depression that has become prevalent in our schools. And I’m not just thinking of the students! Look out for more Mindfulness coming your way soon…

Teacher Wellbeing: Current events are crazy…but summer is still beautiful.

Yesterday was some day. Even by recent standards, waking up to news of tragic events in Nice would be shocking enough, but throw in a military coup in Turkey too and it’s beginning to feel apocalyptic.

Things are beginning to feel very unstable and unfamiliar, and a little frightening. I can feel something in the air; a group tension growing increasingly thicker…waiting for the next upset. Will this next one be worse? Will it be close? Will it hurt them or their loved ones?

But… we are still here. There is still some normality; there is still a great deal of goodness and hope all around us.

For many children and teachers, it’s the first day of summer holidays – a day when we wake up and we really hear the breeze outside, and birds chirping, and the soft hum of cars on the road, and the sense that summer is finally here with all wonder that it brings.

I can feel that in the air too.

3 things teaching gift

A treasured gift from a wonderful trainee teacher years ago.

Of course, it’s okay to be upset by current events; it’s okay to feel a little scared; it’s okay to nod along when your cantankerous elderly relatives moan that ‘the world is going to hell in a hand basket.’

But don’t be consumed by it.

When you’re learning to drive, your instructor always tell you – look at where you want the car to go. Because wherever you look, that’s where you’ll drive. If you stare intently at the hazard ahead, gripped with panic, you’re going to drive into it and crash. If you look at the road ahead but keep the hazards in sight, you might worry a little as you drive, but you’ll get to where you’re going in one piece.    

The only solution is to look at the road ahead; to keep driving.

The only way to fight hate is with love and hope.

I’ve no doubt that the road ahead is going to be bumpy – at points it might be bloody dangerous – but that doesn’t mean we can’t wind down the car window and listen to the birds singing, and feel the warmth of the sun as we drive on.

Talk about terrorism… or someone else will.

Editor’s update (20.11.17): When I wrote this less than a year and a half ago, I had no idea that this terrorist attack would become one of many. As I review this now in November, 2017, I’m incredibly saddened to think that tragic events such as these have almost become ‘the norm.’ At the same time, I am ever more resolved that schools need to tackle this head-on so that students are properly informed. I was reminded a few days ago of a quote from Maya Angelou that rings true here: “Hate: It was caused a lot of the problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Waking up to news of the latest terror attack in Nice, France is so sad. For BBC live news, click here.

The fact that these attacks are becoming more frequent; that we’ve all woken up to different terror attacks more and more often over the last few years, doesn’t make it any less shocking.

Or sad.

It breaks my heart to listen to a teenage girl from Nice, describing the horrific scene on Bastille Day, and going on to say that she will have to think before she goes out now.

As a teacher, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand in front of my students and discuss events such as these, both initially as things happen but also the follow-up when the hate-speak begins.

I’m so sad that this generation of children have to play out their childhood to a chorus of mass shootings, death, hatred and horror.

Even worse, I know a lot of teachers won’t even mention this, because they don’t know how to, without stirring up discussion that they’re unwilling to confront. They don’t understand it themselves.

The result of this though, is that pupils will develop their own uninformed opinion about these attacks and those behind them, or more likely, just pick up someone else’s, allowing terror, hate and fear to grow on both sides.

Though many schools have worked hard to include chunks of information about ‘British Values,’ holding assemblies about refugees and racism and bigotry… I just don’t think it’s enough.  I’m thinking we need some explicit teaching based on these attacks; as difficult and unpleasant that might be; as much as it might bring out the worst in some children; as much as it might even lead to upset. To ignore the topic is far worse.

Those encouraging hatred have upped their game: so then must we.

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?

Focus on behaviour: ask your class to watch someone else.

When I moved from primary to secondary teaching, the biggest challenge I face was dealing with behaviour. Whilst class management is by no means a walk in the park in junior school, nothing can quite compare to the ordeal of teaching a year 9 class, foaming at the mouths at the idea of some boundary-pushing.

So, after a series of really difficult lessons with a notorious year 8 form, I came up with an idea for a one-off lesson. I planned to watch an episode of ‘Educating Yorkshire’ with my class. In this series, the cameras follow the lives of students, teachers and school leaders at ‘Thornhill Community Academy’ in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.

I told the class that we were focusing on our empathy skills, but secretly, I also wanted them to see other students from a school like theirs, displaying negative behaviour just as they were. I wanted them to see the impact that this would have on the school and the students’ futures. I wanted them to become by-standers, observing the poor life choices of others. I didn’t want them to feel like I was telling them what to do or not to do.

Throughout the program, we followed the stories of two year 11 pupils, on the cusp of their final exams, considering their future post-high school. I paused at relevant moments – skipping a few profanities! – as pupils discussed and completed grids in pairs, comparing the two central characters.

Musharaf (Mushy), who suffered dearly with a stutter from being the age of 5, was desperate to conquer the speaking element of his English exam and gain his C in English. We watched him battle with this, supported by an incredible English teacher, teaching assistant, learning mentor, head of year and Head teacher, all of whom showed genuine care for this boy and his journey to find a voice. Alongside this, we followed Hannah, a year 11 girl who referred to school as a ‘prison.’ We watched her turn up late to lessons and then run away from them. When she did attend class, she gave minimum effort and used the time to socialise instead. She admitted herself that she had come into year 7 with big ambitions, but had ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’ and just stopped caring.

The comparison of these two students provoked some really interesting discussion. Students were quick to pick up on the fact that Hannah’s problem was her own choice; it was something that she could control, yet Mushy had no control over his stutter. “It’s about trying,” one pupil told us, “Musharaf is trying and trying so hard and only getting more frustrated and feeling like a failure… but Hannah doesn’t even try.” Another astute student commented that for Hannah, school was the prison, but for Mushy, it was almost like the prison was inside himself. He knew what he wanted to say, but the words just didn’t come out. Not bad for an 11 year old!

The end of the episode was a glorious triumph for Musharaf. English teacher and Assistant head, Mr. Burton, inspired by ‘The King’s Speech’, had Mushy reciting poems while listening to music, and feeling confident, and speaking, for the first time ever. He went on to complete his English speaking exam, and finally addressed his year group in the year 11 leaver’s assembly. It was emotional. My class watched – still; captivated. He left Thornhill with the grades that he needed to get into College, including a C in English. Similarly, Hannah had pulled it together enough at the end, realising that her friends were all leaving her behind, and finally buckling down to some hard work. She achieved 9 GCSEs from A to C.

As the credits rolled, we considered the end results; Musharaf’s glorious success as a result of both his own efforts and the incredible adults going above and beyond to ensure this victory; and Hannah, who had expressed a wish to start life over; whilst her last-minute change of attitude allowed for a better future for herself, we were left with the feeling that she could have been so much more if she had only made better choices. I was able to refer to this in the following lessons, not only in class but also in conversations outside the door with defiant wrongdoers. I asked them think about whether they wanted to leave school like Mushy or like Hannah; feeling like they’d given it their all and smashed goals they never thought possible, or wishing that they could do the last few years over again.

When it comes to poor behaviour, teenage hormones and ingrained bad habits, there is no ‘cure,’ but there is a lot to be said for learning about negative behaviour without directing it at your students. If nothing else, they always enjoy ‘watching telly’ and it’s never bad to be reminded that hard work pays off and bad choices come back to bite you.

*I’ve attached the sheet here – EDUCATING YORKSHIRE – different viewpoints – that students completed in case any teachers want to try this for themselves – honestly, I don’t think this is even necessary if you’d rather just ask key questions and discuss. The video is on YouTube: Educating Yorkshire – series 1 – episode 8.*