Encourage kids to get outside this summer!

I came across this project a couple of years ago as a primary teacher and set it as a fun homework project for my year 5 class to complete over the summer holidays. It’s basically a checklist of 50 things ‘to do before you’re 11¾’ – very simple but also brilliant.

From my experience, this current generation of students ‘don’t get out much.’ The majority of them have very little knowledge of the outside world or first-hand experience of nature.

And that’s not to say that they’re not interested. When I’ve taken both primary and secondary kids out on trips and we’ve experienced ‘the great outdoors,’ they’ve loved it!

I’ve seen children – particularly boys – who struggle to behave within the rigid structure of the classroom, completely transform into enthusiastic, attentive learners and often leaders too.

This generation just have so many sources engaging distraction inside that they’re not really in the habit of going outside.

Children can sign up for an account and check off items as they go, allowing them to incorporate the biggest source of indoor entertainment, the internet, with their activities outside. Perfect! If they’re old school like me, they can just print out the checklist; nothing quite as satisfying as ticking off completed jobs on a list!

The National Trust have aimed this project at younger children who will most likely tackle this with more gusto than their mopey teenage counterparts. However, I can think of many sixteen year olds, eighteen year olds and even thirty year olds, who have never ‘held a scary beast,’ explored a cave’ or ‘found their way on a map with a compass.’

It’s never too late to start!

Explore the website here with your class, your children or just by yourself. Then… just explore!

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.

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?

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.