Reflections on a Career

In her latest post Zoe Enser (@GreeboRuner) reflects on 20 years in the classroom as she heads off to new adventures.

To those who have just opened this up to have a quick read I offer my apologies; this is not going to be a short and pithy blog I’m afraid. You see, although Christmas is often a time where people traditionally reflect on their experiences, achievements and obstacles of the past year, I have an additional reason to do so. After Christmas, I will be leaving the classroom I have inhabited for the last 14 years and will be taking on a different role in education. Therefore, now seems like the perfect time for some reflection on the lessons I have learnt over the last few years.

Although an exciting move, this will be a massive undertaking, after having spent nearly half of my lifetime based inside a school, starting at the wonderful Passmores School as a TA in 1997. I imagine the learning curve I will experience will be as steep as that which I experienced when I first stepped trembling in front of a class I was supporting to read my favourite poem. That is why I think it is essential that I ensure I take the best of my experiences with me and take some time to unpack what these might be.

Improving Pedagogy

On the absolute plus side I am by far a better teacher today than I was even as recently as two years ago. There is still much to learn and many I greatly admire who are making huge differences to the lives of children in some exceedingly challenging circumstances. However, I do believe I have made some significant changes to my practice in quite a short space of time, alongside some slight adjustments and tweaks, which have really improved what I am doing day to day. This is in no small part due to a combination of edutwitter, ResearchEd conferences, Durrington Research school, where I was able to attend some excellent Twilight sessions for free, and some excellent publications which worked well to make me reflect carefully on some of my own assumptions. For example, David Didau’s ‘How to Make Kids Cleverer’, Graham Nuthall’s ‘The Secret Lives of Learners’, Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts’ ‘Boys Don’t Try’ and Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ all made me ask some significant questions around my own practice and that of others. In addition to this, there is now a proliferation of blogs and threads to ponder, some of which I may not agree with, but encourage me to reflect even more deeply as to why. This challenge to my own practice has always been something I relished when working with trainees and other teaching staff and now I have it at my fingertips to explore in the comfort of my own home.

Blogging and writing is also something which I have come to new in the last few years. I have found this to be especially useful in terms of providing a structure to some of my reflection and allowing me to enter into professional discourse with a wider range of educationalists beyond my immediate context. I also have found it a confidence boost at a time when I have not always been at my most confident. After finding that my opinion had been sought out by a range of people in my career, even when just starting as a TA where I co-wrote schemes of work for some of our most vulnerable students, it came as a shock to find that not only was my opinion sometimes not welcome, but actively shut down. It was only when I began to write and find that people were interested in what I had to say about the profession that I recognized how much I felt bereft by this and how it had been effecting my confidence at work.

I had been left feeling frustrated, undervalued and doubting the significance of my knowledge and experience. Even when supported by the research or experiences of others I felt shut down and found myself uncharacteristically unwilling to share my thoughts. Discovering that I did have something left to share gave me the confidence to pursue other avenues in my career and I may not be in a position to be moving on without this experience. As a tool for reflection and development I would suggest others give it a go, even if they don’t then publish it widely. Certainly, those who I have convinced to give it a go at my school have found it beneficial too.

Despite being a controversial addition for some, the Chartered College of Teaching has also been a useful tool for my development over the last few years. When I trained, I had little access to educational research, and most of my knowledge was pieced together from an OU course on Diversity in Education completed whist working as a TA. It wasn’t discussed at the Literacy and English training courses I went to and the most I got in 14 years of attending HoD meetings was the occasional reference to research undertaken by the DFE. To be honest I didn’t always know where to start to find out what underpinned the ideas presented and was not especially encouraged to. Now I can search for further information collected in one place and have a publication to peruse to give me a starting point. The same is true of the EEF, which have encouraged me to reflect on aspects of my teaching relating to metacognition, marking and feedback and literacy. I have also been lucky enough to have undertaken the Assessment Lead programme with the Evidence Based Education group and attended a range of free or relatively cheap CPD twilights hosted by schools such as Heathfield Community College and Bennett Memorial School.

Being able to access such a range of research, discussion, blog posts and training has been especially significant for my role over recent years, as the last thing I wanted was to be in charge of developing CPD across the school and have it based solely on my whims and interests. There is a plethora of research and experience out there and I felt I had a real responsibility to ensure that my colleagues were given access to this in a digestible way which they could utilize. I didn’t want to just tell them what to do though, I wanted them to have the same opportunities as I have had, whilst respecting their different roles, subjects and capacity. I wanted to give them a chance too to explore the ‘why’ which underpinned the ‘what’ and support them to be critical practitioners who would challenge and question as readily as they would adopt where they could see the benefits.

Subject Knowledge

This is also true of subject knowledge and last few years also saw me taking proper control of this area of my own development. When I walked into Passmores back in ’97, fresh from my degree, the plan was to fund an MA in English Literature in order to allow me to teach adults. Within two weeks I knew that it was young people I wanted to work with, and the master Masters’ plan went out of the window. In fact, it stayed out of the window for the next 20 years, although I spent a great deal of time patching together as much knowledge as I could about the texts I was teaching, whilst juggling parenthood and the general demands of the job. Its not easy to prioritize this area when the focus always seems to fall on the next big pedagogical triumph. I have gone through the ‘brain gym’ years remember.

However, I certainly didn’t subscribe to the belief that some held that we could teach anything if given a few hours with a textbook or time to read a chapter ahead. I was given that exact advice early on in my career by a more experienced member of staff and have heard it echoed many times since by a variety of leaders. I though never felt confident that this was a route I wanted to take and found myself sneaking extra reading around the subject into my busy work schedule. I can understand how appealing it is to dismiss subject specialisms when considering timetabling (can’t have a narrative around the importance of specialisms if you are going to get PE to head off to teach 15 different subjects across the school can you?) or workload. However, as the numerous cover lessons I have taken over the years show, giving me that textbook and a few hours to prepare will not and never will, make up for years of accumulated knowledge in one area. Put me in a languages lesson and quickly see how inept a teacher I become. I might be able to keep the students quiet for a while but there won’t be much learning happening and that would be true for a number of different subjects, including those I hold A level qualifications in.

The increased demands of the new GCSEs though gave me an important nudge to revisit this area, and after undertaking a few day sessions at the British Library and Sussex University focusing on English, I decided to sign up to complete an MA with the Open University. Not only did this challenge me in a different way to my day to day experiences, it reinvigorated my love of my subject, filled in some not so insignificant gaps in my knowledge, and reintroduced me to a critical way of thinking about texts which can end up in danger of being lost amongst assessment objectives and exam board specifications. I was reminded that I was teaching students to be critics too, as well as writers and linguists, and that there were elements of the curriculum which needed to reinforce this. This led me to examine even more closely the curriculum I offer and look at ways that I can ensure that all students have access to core knowledge which will enable their ability to do this. This was especially timely with a renewed interest in curriculum at the fore with the likes of Christine Counsell and Mary Myatt championing the way.

There is no doubt that my teaching has improved significantly for the two years spent completing this qualification. But I have also worked hard to ensure that others get the opportunity to focus on developing subject knowledge too, even if they are unable to access a course such as this. Department time and sharing of blogs and subject specific writing aims to support this as much as possible. Just knowing that you are appreciated as an expert in your area and that, no, not anyone could turn up and teach your subject, is an important statement.

Leadership

This brings me on to leadership and my reflections on this. Before finding my new position, I did go for a series of interviews for leadership roles in other schools. A bit like kissing a lot of frog before you find the prince or princess you are destined for. I learnt a lot from these experiences; most significantly, I learnt a lot about the kind of leader I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a leader just so I can say I am, so I am not going to align myself to teaching principles and practices which I do not see as beneficial. I don’t want to be a leader who ‘cracks heads’ and ‘busts balls’. I don’t believe any teacher turns up at school with an aim to not do the best job they can. If they aren’t getting it ‘right’ in some way, there will be a reason and simply launching a series of missives at them will not bring about change. I respect my colleagues too much to want to be that kind of leader. Challenge, question, explore and support, by all means, but never forget there is someone there who has the potential to be brilliant if the circumstances are right. We all can. And brilliant teachers do brilliant things for our students. I value those I work with and a leadership role requiring anything else is quite simply not for me. At the end of the day I have to go home with myself every night and I can’t do that if I have behaved in a way which compromises my ethics.

Personal Achievements

And what I do when I go home is also important to me. I have run everyday for something like the last 130 days by the time you are reading this and have achieved some wonderful things in this area over the last year. Okay, I might not be breaking any records, but getting a personal best for miles covered in 24 hours and a marathon best time of 3:43 is pretty damn good for, a definitely not athletic throughout my life, 47-year-old. I’m not writing about this in order to brag, but to point out the importance of a world beyond teaching for our wellbeing. I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching, being in work doing the teaching, talking about teaching and waking up in the night suddenly realizing something I had forgotten to do in teaching. The last one is a much rarer occurrence these days but there have been times when it was a nightly visitation, with a racing heartbeat in the morning to match. I must try to guard my wellbeing as much as possible as there are not always others out there willing or able to do the same. Often, they don’t have the insight to my workload and the demands it places and certainly they won’t know how this makes me feel. As Becky Allen pointed out in her excellent presentation at ResearchEd London this year, we often don’t know what the experiences of our colleagues are in the classroom and we most certainly don’t know how that makes them feel. We are a diverse bunch with a myriad of experiences and beliefs which shape us as a professional as well as a person. We can’t therefore wait for others to check in with us in terms of our wellbeing; we need to find our line and decide what can and can’t cross it. Running is one aspect of this for me. Even if I have been at work since 7 in the morning and it is now gone 6, I am going to go for a run. It clears my head, reduces the stress hormones in my body and gives me some space to reflect. Sometimes I reflect on my running form. Sometimes I reflect on my relationships with those around me. Sometimes I reflect on my practice. Most of this blog post, and one or two other pieces I am working on, was composed on a run today and I have written lesson plans galore whilst plodding round a field in the mud.

Running is most definitely not everyone’s cup of tea but deciding on what your wellbeing ‘non-negotiables’ are is important. If it is dinner with the family, putting the kids to bed, reading a book for half an hour or sitting in front of the television with your ‘guilty pleasure’, you need to cherish it. If it makes you feel human again and ready to face the new challenge with renewed vigor, then how can anyone deny you it?

As I ran today and caught myself pushing too hard up yet another hill, I was also reminded of something else which is important for my own wellbeing; I don’t always have to push so hard. Even if I go slower, I will still get to the top. Once I am there, take the time to enjoy the view and any downhill it yields too. Take a deep breath and relax before you hit the next hill. The same is true of work. All too often I have an urgent desire to get there quickly and sometimes I need to remember to be patient with myself and others. Keep pushing at a steady pace and we can all get there. Not everything needs to be a sprint. Change and improvement can take time and we need to make carefully judgements on where we need the sudden surge or slow steady forward momentum.

Further Adventures

Next year is going to be exciting, terrifying, challenging and probably a million and one things I haven’t even considered yet. I am really looking forward to seeing a huge range of new contexts and talking to a range of new teachers. The learning curve I am sure will be steep and at times probably exhausting. However, it will be an incredibly privileged position to be in and will guarantee that I will continue to develop my practice even further. Some might consider me to no longer be a teacher once I step into this new role, although I am pretty sure there may be plenty of opportunities for me to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in with a class. However, after nearly 23 years in a secondary classroom I think that change won’t happen overnight. I will remember the lessons I have learnt, especially in recent years. I will continue to learn from my colleagues, make sure they feel their voice is heard and valued and support them in providing the best possible education for their students. It is going to be an awfully big adventure but it is an adventure which would not have been possible without the opportunities which I have reflected on above in the last few years.

Happy Christmas to all and I hope the new year brings the best adventures to you all.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is out now. Check out how to manage workload and seize control of your classroom.

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