Leading in the time of lockdown

I was planning to write about how I have approached teaching in the time of lockdown when I read Becky Allen’s excellent blog: https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2020/04/29/parental-load-theory/ Her experience encapsulates the difficulty of being a parent with a full time job who has been thrust into the role of a home-schooling-teaching-parent-who-must-maintain-their-full-time-job-from-home. At that moment, the idea of the blog changed into one about the messages one sends to the staff you manage so that we recognise the challenges for the newly formed phenomena that is the parent-cum-teacher.

Briefly, however, before reading the blog, my aim when setting work for the students I teach has been to keep it as straightforward as possible, to prioritise recapping prior knowledge with quizzes and the like and to minimise the amount of marking that might need to be done. Feedback is still being provided, but by providing answers to the questions in the quizzes. There is some work to be done to get this right, but I’ll say more on this in the next blog.

Mostly, this way of working was informed by self-preservation more than anything else, but the aforementioned blog suggests that parents are struggling. It chimes with what my working friends have subsequently said.

Personally, my typical working day has been abandoned in favour of going for an occasional run, giving my three daughters breakfast and talking to them each morning (I’m a fan of this change), doing a bit of Joe Wicks (my wife and I are more invested than the kids), and then scanning and responding to emails on my phone while listening to a phonics video, or Alphablocks/Numberblocks, or any Ben and Holly/other Disney type films in the background in an effort to occupy them. Then, my primary school teacher wife comes in and takes over the proper home schooling, teaching a five and three year old to write, teaching how to add and subtract the numbers between one and ten, teaching about the life cycle of a frog or a butterfly, and I disappear to somewhere “quiet” to do some work. All of this work is set by my eldest daughter’s excellent teacher and my two are generally quite happy to get on and do it. If anything is unclear, we usually can figure it out and because only one is of school age, the others can just go with the flow. This “flow” happens for about 20 minutes before an interruption of some kind, where I abandon work until the evening and set about amusing our one year old who has been sabotaging the home schooling with her excitable, destructive and adorable ways. Though I still check my phone and respond to the emails and WhatsApp messages that come my way.

Of course, we are very lucky. I am a teacher. My wife is a teacher. We are both at home more often than not, getting paid as normal, and in theory we have the expertise to help – though I found “writing a story” with said five year old a Herculean test of patience. We have a printer and ink. We have resources, or can buy them. There is a computer they can use as well as some tablets. There are more pencils than we know what to do with. We have children who are of an age where it’s nice time with mummy and daddy.

And still, it is hard.

So, much of the role of being a leader has been about sharing the message that it is okay to be just okay, and that this applies to our students and their work, too, particularly when we are armed with data telling us that some students do not have such luck/advantages and when we hear more anecdotally that many are struggling in other ways. Call my message the soft bigotry of low expectations if you like. I just think, at this *unprecedented* time, it is realistic and reasonable; students and staff need to be forgiving of themselves and others. Telling this to my faculty I think has been gratefully received. Below are the actual words I wrote to my faculty at the beginning of this term. I hope it strikes the balance between the practical and the human.

After this, communications from me have been fairly limited. We have to trust other professionals to get on and do their job.

Thanks for reading.

Dear all

I hope you and yours are all keeping well and that your Easter was as pleasant as it could be.

Details of the process for entering calculated grades for Y11 and Y13 students will be made clear to all staff in the early part of the week. 

In the meantime, for the weeks ahead, my best advice is:

aim to set work for a week so students can manage their time as they see fit.

please do put it in the “COVID-19” scheme of learning on Go4Schools so that others can re-use; we can save each other a good deal of time if we re-use others’ resources and it helps to maintain a measure of consistency

aim to strike a balance of revising previous material and introducing some new material.

There’s no reason why Y7/8/9 couldn’t review their knowledge of Stone Cold/Animal Farm/ Of Mice and Men in the form of quizzes and comprehension tasks, or do some short writing tasks on it.

The new material should be do-able e.g. y10 students could be reading A Christmas Carol and answering comprehension questions on it

Y10 students should be tasked with preparing for their Spoken Language assessment (use the comprehensive document attached)

Any new KS3 material should more or less follow the JWS English curriculum in place that you hadn’t yet taught, adapted so it is appropriate. If we abandon it completely, it rather suggests it’s not up to scratch. If that’s the case, we need to do something about it.

direct students to the Youtube channel and feel free to create more videos (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC13YEUva4JYlspmgdZv5R1w?view_as=subscriber) to help with the teaching of new content (e.g. I have created some short videos on Richard II to help my Y12 class and some short explainers on the Power and Conflict poems)

– look at https://www.thegrid.org.uk/learning/english/ to see if there is anything usable. HfL are sharing a weekly digest that I will filter downwards.

when they “go live” on Monday, have a look at the resources from BBC Bitesize (https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize) and Oak National Academy (https://www.thenational.academy) and if there is anything you think we should all be doing, share it. If there is no need to reinvent the wheel, don’t reinvent it.

For Y11s wanting to study English, they should look into the list attached in the Year 11 Reading list document (taken from the Assistant Lead Examiner for the paper who led the training we had earlier this year).

For Y13 students, it’s necessarily a bit more ad hoc. I am communicating with my class via Google Classrooms and responding to what they want from me.  Given the smaller class sizes, that seems the best way to go.

All students in all year groups should continue to work on the Extended English project I set/forwarded.

I have attached resources that have been procured from beyond our normal curriculum that can be used if you think it’s helpful. Again, share anything particularly wonderful.

The EMC (English and Media Centre’s) KS3 Home Learn Pack – 145 pages of literature and tasks – it will need breaking down and is in addition to our curriculum, but looks really useful.The EMC revision booklet for A Christmas Carol

The EMC revision booklet for GCSE English Language

A Spoken Language assessment booklet (from HertsforLearning)

A final point: be realistic. We have to recognise that some students will do lots of work and others will do very little. We aren’t going to set detentions and we aren’t going to issue threats. If trained professionals struggle to get some students to work when at school, many parents will find this especially challenging and may even be grateful to know they are safely upstairs playing the PS4 rather than out on their bikes with a few mates (I have seen a few out on their bikes on my “daily exercise” walking round the estates of Hoddesdon while teaching my own how to ride theirs). If we add in that parents might be working from home, that there might be illness or bereavement, or that they may not have the knowledge to help, then we have to set work that is achievable for all and be forgiving if it doesn’t get done.  That has to also be the case if there is just disinclination to do any work.  But it explains the position of setting work that reviews what has already been covered, with simple knowledge/comprehension tasks for new material. Though my own children are young, my wife and I are covering addition/subtraction (“Maths”) by playing Snakes and Ladders and we do phonics by playing the same Youtube songs they sing at school and singing along and we play lots of games and creative things. I have even been baking. Anything more formal is a real challenge when supposedly working (as the designated English specialist in the house, I have to get my five year old to write a story!)– and that’s in the position of two teachers who don’t have to worry about pay, care a good deal about education etc.  Teachers are in a tricky situation, but it could be worse. Let’s be mindful of that.

Something is better than nothing. Even if it’s not formal “work”, we need to push our subject in ways beyond the classroom.  So, encourage them to read lots, engage in the theatre (https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/nt-at-home), (https://globeplayer.tv/), (https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/watch/#free-youtube-premieres) and listen to music. This week, the NTatHome are showing Treasure Island.  My fingers are crossed The History Boys is scheduled soon!

And here is one for each of you to read on poetry. As a fan of Larkin, I rather agreed. I will be sharing with my y12s to see what they think.

https://thefederalist.com/2017/09/25/suspicions-correct-free-verse-poetry-garbage/#.XpsE8UyqVOo.twitter

If anyone wants to speak in person, pick up the phone and I’ll hope to answer it.  Though, if you have ever tried that, you’ll know I’ll probably miss it/not pick up and call you back!

Best

James

We believe in the power of literature and language to provide opportunities for young people to visit worlds beyond their own, and to shed light on the one in which they already live. 

Hello!

Who am I?

I am James Fitzgerald, an English teacher of 11 years. Over that time, I have been a Key Stage Three Leader, a Head of English, and now I work as an Assistant Headteacher at a comprehensive academy in Hertfordshire. I have a few roles with an exam board; hopefully I’ll be able to write something of value.

Why blog and why now?

Well, the ‘now’ bit is easier to answer. We are in “lockdown” and there is more time of an evening to write something. And I like writing. It’s fun. As to why, that’s more complex. While I have been on Twitter (@js_fitzy) since 2009, so it tells me – and actually looked at it since about 2015 – I have watched on from afar as I have seen the sharing of ideas, resources, and help. It has been a source of huge inspiration, whether that be the using and adapting of resources, or just seeing how teachers and leaders view and do things – Tom Sherrington, Chris Curtis and the whole phenomenon that is TeamEnglish spring to mind for their whole school thinking and approaches to English teaching respectively.

This is the community I want to be contribute to, as far as I can.

I have been reticent due to what I perceive as “the bile”. Generally, teachers appear to try do good things for good reasons, but when that leads to insults, the questioning of motives and inherent suspicion of anyone and anything, joining in seems like an unnecessary burden. So, I never have, other than the odd “like”. I don’t think arguing with people will do me or anyone much good. Frankly, I still have my reservations, but I’ll never know if I don’t try.

Why the blog title?

As an English teacher, it was necessarily something literary. This particular line comes from The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. It was the text that got me hooked on reading. I was 20 years old, in the midst of an English Literature degree, and I had finally found something that made me want to read more (there’s probably more to say, here – another time). So I did read more, subsequently working my way through the rest of the Philip Marlowe collection. Since then, reading has – more or less – been a constant. Currently, I’m enjoying Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. Children (three girls under five) and work and television and tiredness and eating out and looking at my phone too much and all the other parts of life sometimes break this habit, but I always return to it. I suspect I’ll say some more about reading as I get into the swing of blogging.

As for the line itself, it struck me as a truism about education, or at least the way I see it. While I hope I’m not nearly as cynical (or misogynistic) as Marlowe, I don’t see teachers as heroes. They shouldn’t have to be knights. I think if we set out to be heroes, we will probably fail – although if you have the secret to this, do let me know. Instead, I feel that what they/you/I should aim to do, is the very best for the students in their care, to enable students to know a little bit more each day, to be a little bit more socialised, to value learning in and of itself, but without sacrificing themselves to make this happen. We all know that sometimes it won’t work out, but when it does, as it will, it’s a great feeling. We go in, we work hard, we try our best, we look after our people – students and staff – we go home. And we do it because we love our subjects and want to try and, as Hector in The History Boys puts it, “pass the parcel”. And we do it because we value the act of learning, whatever the subject. And we do it day after day because it’s the right thing to do, our moral imperative. That’s not heroism, but consistency and reliability. Hence, hero narratives don’t really fit the bill for me, Clive (sorry, football joke), although it might read as a bit more heroic than first intended! Either way, being there, consistently, reliably, trying to model high expectations in one way or another, is good enough.

And now, as an Assistant Headteacher with responsibility for English, oversight of music and drama, as well as various things teaching and learning, I’d quite like to write about the ways in which I try to do those things and more each day. If no one reads it, fine, but it’s a professional diary of thinking for me.

Of course, at this time of lockdown, being there each day isn’t possible for most. Most of our heroes are working in other areas of the public sector at the minute, but we can still be reliable and consistent, working cleverly to try and do the best for the students in our care, even if that is a rather remote care.

In future blogs, I might well try to explain what I have been trying to do with remote learning as well as how I have tried to lead a team of teachers and many other things besides. I imagine it might depend what is in my head on any given day.

Until then… thanks for reading.