Archive | November, 2013

Building the bridge as you walk over it: Reflections on a fabulous #SLTCamp

24 Nov

Being at SLT Camp was one of those moments where you feel part of something really important. There was a feeling amongst all of the campers that this wouldn’t be the only SLT Camp; there’s just too much potential for this model to be replicated up and down the country. Chatting to Sarah (@MsFindlater) and Graham Newell (@Graham_IRISC) on the Saturday night, we were adamant that this type of grass-roots movement would make a difference to teaching and leadership over the next few years.

What follows are our reflections on the key themes from the weekend and our ponderings on how we can ignite change in our schools after discussions with a range of brilliant professionals.



In the lead-up to SLT Camp, I experienced my first SLT melt-down. When I started my job in January, I was extremely fortunate that my head gave me a reduced timetable to give me time and space to get to know how the school works and to have the time to go and watch every teacher. This extra time was invaluable for me because it meant I hit the ground running, was highly visible to staff and students and learnt quickly the lay of the land.

Then September came along and so began the real start to my job – balancing the demands of being on SLT and teaching English to years 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. For the first half term, I was managing ok but over the half term break, I spent most of it marking to help me get back on track with all of my classes. I didn’t really have a proper break. It was like being an NQT all over again (but with more wrinkles!). When I started the second half of the autumn term, I began making silly mistakes – forgetting to do data entry, deleting emails by mistake, not double checking my controlled assessment folders that were called for the GCSE sample – and for the first time I had a panic about whether I was up for this job. There were tears. Luckily my deputy head was on hand to offer me a tissue and to talk with me about work/life balance.

“You don’t have to be Superwoman, Debbie! You can’t keep up this pace and plan fantastic lessons as well. You must slow down.”

Sometimes it’s so hard to keep all of the plates spinning. I am not comfortable with planning mediocre lessons and then going into other teachers’ classes and making suggestions about how to tweak their practice. I think I’d die of the shame, as my Nan used to say! Ironically, one of the things she mentioned was to stop attending so many after school teach meets; I didn’t tell her that, in fact, I’d booked myself into a whole weekend of CPD! She did laugh when I told her on Monday where I’d been…

When I arrived at SLT Camp on the Friday night late after getting lost down pitch-black country lanes with no Sat Nav, I was feeling a bit low. Thankfully, ten minutes later, I found myself sitting with a bunch of great people, glass of wine in hand and chowing down on lasagne. Things were looking up! That night we had the teach meet element of the weekend and it set the tone for the rest of the weekend; every one that presented had something in common – they were all deeply reflective about what it meant to be an effective leader. I presented on developing a strong learning culture and afterwards received so many encouraging comments that it reminded me that we teachers are so quick to do ourselves down when things go wrong. Sometimes we need to stop and think about the good things we’re doing as well as what we still need to do to get better.

Jill Berry (@jillberry102) said something during her presentation that really stuck with me for the whole weekend: you build the bridge as you walk over it. This is one of the lessons I need to learn if I’m to survive as a senior leader. I want to make the bridge as strong as possible to ensure everyone gets over safely – me included! Yet real life isn’t like that. Sometimes you have to adapt and accept that you can’t always control what’s put in front of your path.


Saturday morning began ridiculously early since Stephen (@mrlockyer) insisted we get up at the crack of dawn to set up our top secret mission: SLT Boot Camp! What fun Mel and I had in Tiger and Poundland buying the most ludicrous items possible and thinking of how we could incorporate them into our boot camp. When the rest of the campers arrived and saw a plastic cactus, cocktail sticks, wooden toys, blindfolds and a special Davina McCall workout hula hoop, there were a few bemused faces but people got into the spirit of it pretty quickly when they realised there were prizes on offer – us teachers are a competitive bunch! I’ll leave it up to Mel to tell more about the boot camp because she spent so long making sure everything went well.


In the afternoon, we split up into areas that we were interested in and this was such a great part of the weekend. When do we ever get a chance to sit down and engage in proper conversation with other leaders about successful and less successful experiences of implementing change? I learnt so much from listening to primary and secondary colleagues sharing what was going on in their school. The two things I’m determined to do in my school are to develop the action research CPD model we’ve started this year and to think about what impact our new marking and feedback policy is having on students and staff. We’re on the right track but I still think we’ve got more to do, particularly how senior and middle leaders work together to lead on change. I don’t want to say too much about Saturday night (Chatham House rules) but it was hilarious. After seeing some of our favourite tweachers in Mexican hats, learning how to salsa dance, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to tweet them in quite the same way again!

Before we knew it, Sunday morning had arrived and it was time for reflection. I looked at Stephen and Sarah sharing their final thoughts and was bowled over by what fantastic people they are; they have spent months preparing for this event for no reward except a desire to see teachers take the lead in making and sustaining change in education. I can’t think of any other profession that works so hard outside of contracted hours without the prospect of paid overtime or a nice little bonus. I looked around the room and felt so proud to be part of this brilliant profession. Andy Day (@Andyphilipday) left me with a lump in my throat when he spoke about coming to the end of his career and the need for ‘hope’ if we are to keep making a difference to young people’s lives. He said how every one of us in the room represented ‘hope’ because we are the next set of leaders to support students and staff in fulfilling their potential.

So what have I learnt about igniting change, the theme of the first SLT Camp? You can’t make it happen by yourself and we are strongest when we are united. It was a privilege to be surrounded by leaders who were trying their utmost to help their schools become the best place for individuals to learn and flourish.

Thanks again to Stephen and Sarah for organising – here’s to the next one!



Once upon a time in a pub in Scotland, three blokes met up and shared some ideas about teaching and learning. Little did these blokes know that they had started something amazing: the first ever Teachmeet or that people all over the country (and beyond)  would replicate this idea and leave the meeting feeling inspired, uplifted, refreshed, passionate and relieved that they are not alone in their desire to be even better.

I love this story. I love it because it’s about real, hardworking, everyday people deciding to make a difference. It’s about people who aren’t trying to make money, make themselves look good or push a political agenda. It’s about sharing and collaborating for the good of all the learners we have the privilege to work with.

Once upon a time, in a youth hostel in Surrey, forty (ish) keen teachers met up and shared some ideas about leading change. Little did these forty (ish) people know that they had started something amazing: the first ever SLT camp……


OK, so maybe I’m looking into the future and maybe it won’t take off, but really – who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with people who can question, challenge, support, console, reignite, uplift, inspire AND salsa dance with them?!!

When the tickets were released for SLT camp, I was on a Greek island, desperately trying to connect to the hotel’s wifi to be sure to get my place booked. My reasons for going were different from many others – I’m not on SLT (yet?) but I am responsible for leading teaching and learning (will some people auto correct me to ‘learning and teaching’? Does it actually matter?) across my school  and I am keen to be involved in igniting other changes.  I wanted to get a better idea of the challenges that leaders face, the mistakes they are brave enough to discuss with others and the successes and great ideas they are kind enough to share.

Arriving on the Friday night, on my own, quite flustered from a much longer than expected journey (with stop-offs for some extra random items for Saturday’s team-building activities) and without my lovely partner-in-tweets, Debbie, I suddenly felt a bit shy! Fortunately, everyone I walked past was so friendly and welcoming; soon I had a name sticker, a seat and, most importantly of all, a big glass of red. So feeling better, I sat down (right at the front of the room) and Stuart Lock began talking about his suggested charity for our donations.

Now, I will regret admitting this publicly but I am a crier. I cry at ‘DIY SOS’, at Comic Relief and at leaving speeches for people I don’t even really know.  Seriously when Stuart bravely told his story I couldn’t believe I had to sit there right in front of him trying to hold it together. Needless to say, I didn’t but I did manage to keep it to just slightly teary eyes rather than full on sobbing, so I’m pretty proud of myself.

The Teachmeet was just fabulous – lots of food for thought, inspiring words and questions to ask myself. I too found Jill’s presentation really helpful and noted done her Quinn bridge quote, as well as making notes to self to ask the lovely Andy (@Andyphilipday) about his use of checklists and to add another book to my reading list (The first 90 days by Michael Watkins). Thanks to all who presented and thanks to Sarah and Stephen for starting the weekend off so well, with lots of time to ask the presenters for more information.

From food for thought to food for comfort: crikey, we were well looked after on that front! A delicious dinner and more wine meant we had to really drag our(much heavier)selves up to join Stephen the next morning to prepare for the team building activities.


OK, so I like a good picture quiz and love watching people doing slightly bizarre activities with duck gloves and cocktail sticks but I accept that, for some bizarre reason, that’s not everyone’s idea of fun.  However, all the preparation was worth it when I got to stand in the middle of a freezing cold village hall on a Saturday morning, listening to people who didn’t know each other cheer themselves on as they flicked a hula hoop over their shoulder or admitted to being able to name all the members of One Direction.  That is what it feels like to really be part of a team.  Isn’t it?


When we asked Stephen and Sarah how the rest of the Saturday would work, it all sounded a bit unstructured. Who would lead the discussions? Nobody. What would we be discussing? Anything. BUT – unstructured was the perfect model for an “unconference”. Sarah did an amazing job of collecting questions and discussion points for each of the sessions and it worked perfectly. We had enough of a structure to know where to start, or where to go if we didn’t know where to go, without feeling constrained in any way. I love that Stephen kept encouraging us to get up and move to a different table if we weren’t getting what we wanted from where we were, although once you were on a table and started listening to everyone’s ideas, you didn’t really want to leave and miss anything! I learnt a huge amount and have to name check @StuartLock again, as I had some great discussions with him and love his depth of opinion. In all honesty, I thought I’d find him a bit scary, instead, I was just impressed with the questions he asked – the sort that really make you think about what you really think.

What did I gain from the weekend? More items on my to-read list; some inspirational quotes; an awareness of the condition CDH (I am starting to sound like your stalker, but thanks again @StuartLock) some great merchandise (wearing my SLT camp hat as I type!), pictures in my head to go with Twitter handles (what happens at SLT camp stays on SLT camp), a few pounds thanks to the delicious comfort food, some great memories (what happens at SLT camp stays on SLT camp!), a list of questions and actions for me personally and to take back into my school and the privilege to be able to say ‘The first ever SLT camp, oh yes, I was there!’

 slt camp letters


Rethinking my practice: what is the best advice for our student teachers?

10 Nov

New teacher ideas

In the past fortnight, I’ve been thinking deeply about what it must be like for student teachers who are working hard to become a qualified teacher. Much has been made of the importance of QTS – for excellent articles on the subject, read Alex Quigley’s article for the Guardian and Tom Bennett’s piece for the TES.

However, I’ve been more interested in the fledgling beliefs of our student teachers about what makes a great teacher. It’s easy to forget about how bloody difficult it is being a student teacher: you’re learning new ideas at a rapid pace; you’re trying out these ideas on students you don’t really know; you have no point of comparison to judge whether you’re making progress with these students or not; you’re ridiculously tired; you don’t have your own classes so you’re constantly being judged by the students in relation to their normal teacher. This week, I flippantly remarked to a group of student teachers how lovely it would be to only teach nine hours a week. They laughed politely but, as soon as I said it, I thought to myself ‘What a stupid thing to say!!! How long are these student teachers spending on these nine lessons?’ I was cross with myself for falling into the trap of an experienced teacher lording it over new members of staff and telling them how terribly difficult it is teaching a full timetable.

On Friday, I was reminded of this exchange when I saw a tweet from Rachael Stevens, aka @murphiegirl, discussing the experience of her student teachers. She said that her student teachers were spending five hours planning and resourcing for a lesson that lasts for just one hour!

This rings true from what our student teachers were saying to me on Wednesday during our training. One student teacher told me they’d spent an hour planning a 10 minute starter. I was exactly the same when I was in her position; I would spend hours planning lessons and I couldn’t imagine how I would survive teaching 20 hours a week. Luckily, my mentor told me that it was totally unrealistic to plan in that much detail and gave me a really good weekly structure to follow. We taught three hours of English a week and she said to do a really well-planned first lesson, lots of teacher explanation and modelling combined with resources to support students. The second lesson should be about scaffolding to see if the students learnt what they were intended to in the previous lesson. This time, the resources needed to be focused on providing different exemplars to allow students to compare their work with different levelled/graded pieces. The final lesson of the week would be very little teacher input, a co-constructed success criteria before students practised independently what it was I had tried to teach them in the first lesson.

This approach was revelatory! Suddenly, my planning was cut in half and I started to gain a much clearer picture of my students’ progress each week. Over the years, I have tweaked this approach as I have increased my pedagogical knowledge but the structure remains pretty much the same, albeit over a longer period of time than a week (I could only think week by week back then!).

So back to this week’s training with the student teachers. I have delivered many sessions over the years and have mentored student teachers on various routes as well as NQTs – I’ve got resources coming out of my ears. But here’s the thing: I don’t know if I’m still the same teacher I was a year ago. I don’t know if everything I’ve said in the past is what I still think now. Completing my MA in Education and having access to excellent books and journals, combined with joining Twitter and reading many fantastic blogs has made me question previously held views. This week I wanted to take a different approach to the training and focus on the student teachers understanding the difference between filling time and planning for learning.

It was an interesting session and afterwards the student teachers said they’d got a lot out of it. They could obviously be trying to be nice but the questions they were asking and their responses to mine led me to believe that they were thinking hard about what really matters. What follows is a summary of the session and the main ideas that student teachers were concerned about in their first term of teaching.

Activities, activities, activities: how to fill up time

Student teachers seem to be under the assumption that a great lesson is about planning lots of fun activities. They are spending an enormous amount of time on planning activities which require time-intensive resourcing. Unfortunately this has led to nothing more successful than an addiction to laminating and guillotining. How much it has led to an increase in student progress is questionable. Experienced teachers know they need to think about what they want students to learn first and then think about what activity will be useful for the lesson. When you start out, it is much more difficult to identify what you want students to learn over a sequence of lessons. We spent time in the session thinking about how these time-intensive activities could be tweaked to ensure that they did not require such a vast input of resources. By the end of this part of the session, the student teachers had come up with a bank of hooks they could start each lesson that required little resourcing and could be reused with minimal changes each week. They also decided on a bank of ‘takeaways’ as we call it, to judge whether students have understood the most essential new piece of knowledge from that lesson. The key is to use these hooks and takeaways in a cycle so students focus less on the activity because they are so familiar with it and more on the thinking they will need to evidence their learning. At our school, we have our version of the 5 minute lesson plan that staff can use to plan their lessons quickly yet effectively. We also like to share David Didau’s post ‘Go with the flow: 2 minute lesson plan’.

Group work: students must learn from each other

New teacher help

When I asked student teachers how they felt about group work, they all said how important it was and that they tried to include it in every lesson. All of these student teachers are from the same university and had read some literature on the importance of ‘doing group work’. Now, I want to make my position clear: I am not anti-group work. I am anti time wasting, making students do tasks that they could have done better by themselves and thinking group work is anything involving students sitting around the same table. I am for tasks that focus on cognitive development and social development second. When I asked the students if they had encountered any problems doing group work, their responses were not surprising – I’m not going to bother listing all of them here but they expressed concerns about getting everyone to pull their weight and how to manage behaviour. More importantly, when I introduced Martin Robinson’s, aka @SurrealAnarchy, article about group work they were stunned. They were under the impression that they needed to set up group work in every lesson. There was excellent discussion around the need to train students to work effectively in groups and perhaps not to even attempt it until they had mastered pair work, as suggested by Martin in his article.

AfL: time to get out those lollypop sticks

AfL cartoon

Interestingly, the first and only research they’d come across on their course was Black and Wiliam’s Inside The Black Box. They knew how important AfL was because they needed to make reference to it in their evaluations and they had all tried out self and peer assessment activities. Some of them had tried lolly pop sticks to develop their questioning strategies; others had tried getting the students to write a WWW / EBI on their partner’s work. Both of these strategies had been suggested by their university tutors. I gave them a copy of a grid Mel and I made where we look at the differences between superficial and sophisticated AfL. Much of our recent discussion on sophisticated AfL stems from reading Claire Gadsby’s Perfect Assessment for Learning. We often feel saddened that AfL has been devalued and cheapened by boiling it down to a few tricks and tips to use that can be ticked off on an observation or evaluation form. AfL is an ethos, a spirit of continual improvement. It is about building up a culture of feedback over a sustained period of time. This cannot be achieved by gimmicks alone. For an insightful post on AfL, look no further than Joe Kirby’s take on the problems with AfL. We advise all student teachers to read this during their teaching practice.

Marking: how do you mark all of these books?

Marking overload

The student teachers have just started marking a few books with their subject mentors to get a feel for marking and feedback. They are at a loss as to how they will be able to mark nearly 200 students’ books. I told them that it was perfectly natural to feel like that – we all felt like that sometimes, regardless of how long we’d been teaching! We talked about the importance of creating a marking schedule. This is one of the first things I do with my student teachers. We start with the assessment and work backwards.

How will the students be assessed?

What do they need to know and be able to do?

How many lessons will you need to teach what is to be assessed?

At what points in the topic will you test what the students have learnt so far and give them feedback?

From these questions, we plan mini assessment points which will require feedback before the summative assessment at the end of the topic. We try and balance the demands of KS3 and KS4 so that there are not too many long pieces of work to mark in both key stages with similar deadlines. If student teachers can create a workable marking feedback rota, this helps them balance their workload and they are less likely to drown around March time when they’re teaching 12 lessons, are really tired, getting ill and trying to secure a job for September.

We recommend our student teachers read Alex Quigley’s post on marking and feedback, which is realistic yet rigorous. If they can give feedback like Alex, then they’re onto a winner!

Lessons to be learnt

I don’t think I have ever questioned my approach to teaching as much as I have this year. I tried to relate this to the student teachers. You never feel 100% confident that what you’re doing is the ‘right way’. You’ll read something new and you’ll try something out and realise it is better than what you were doing previously. You never stop learning. Being a brilliant teacher means you will never feel comfortable. As soon as you do, it’s time to up your game once more. There is much to be learnt from student teachers: their minds are open to learning new ideas and they want to be the best teachers that they can. Good luck to all those who have started their journey to being a qualified teacher – it really is the best job in the world!

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