Is there a different way?

This blog starts with an email.  It is sent to me.  I read it and it asks me to do something at a specific time.  This action is something that I frequently do anyway, so it’s no big deal.  I’ll definitely complete what I’ve been asked to do for it’s neither difficult, time consuming, nor unreasonable.  In fact, it’s the very model of reasonableness and it’s similar in content and tone to so many that I too once used to write.  Emails in which I too would ask others to do things that, perhaps, they already were doing.  It’s how the world goes round.  We ask.  We do.  We follow the instructions.

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If I’m honest, I’ve felt a bit lost of late, creatively speaking that is.  I’ve not updated this blog, not written a podcast, not given vent to the more imaginative aspect of who I am and what I like to do.  I’ve not filmed anything; my camera roll is looking thin.  I’ve managed to write fragments for an ongoing project.  And I’ve deleted plenty too.  So yes, I’ve felt a bit creatively lost.  It’s like there is something that I want to say, something that I need to get out of my system before I can draw a line under this feeling and move on.  I need to move on.  I’ve not enjoyed feeling creatively stuck.  Several weeks ago I thought that the depression that plagued the earlier part of my life was returning.  I have the tools now, the learning, the knowledge, the experience to be able to take a step back and analyse this for myself.  In truth, it hasn’t returned.  I’m not depressed; I’m frustrated.  I’m not depressed; I’m stuck.  I’m not depressed; I’m following the instructions, and to be honest I’ve had enough of doing so.

We’re all sold a story, a narrative of progression if you like.  At heart it is simple: do this; earn that; buy this; you’ll be happy.  And, get busy doing it.  Now, on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this.  Everything that I have ever achieved has been as a result of being functionally busy, of doing the work, of getting things done.  And this has served me well for most of the time.  Most of the time being busy has been the default setting that has enabled me to get a grip of myself and therefore complete what I’ve set out to do: teach well; an Ironman; marathons; an MA; family life. Great.  Busy is good.  Or busy is good until you reach the point where your busyness is simply made up of responding to others’ needs, wishes and whims.  Busy is good until it starts to crowd out the lonely voice nagging away at the back of your mind…

And that voice is clearly asking one of life’s more difficult questions: is there a different way?

Schools are a testimony to the difficulty of the question.  Despite the obvious technological and societal changes of the last 150 years, a Victorian wandering into a modern school would still recognise it as such.  From classrooms to staffing structures, assemblies to lessons, essentially things have stayed the same.  We follow the rules.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  If I go and see the doctor, I want her to follow the rules.  When I trust a school with the care of my children, I want them to follow the rules.  Following the rules has given me opportunities enough to be able to live a life that is acceptable to me.  I’m grateful that I have learned the rules successfully enough to be, well, successful.  In recent years following in the footsteps of others has enabled me to relearn how to live more calmly, more responsibly, more acceptably.  But here’s the thing that I’ve been struggling with and slowly accepting: following the rules will only get you so far.  If you want to go further, you’ve got to write your own.  If you want to truly express yourself creatively, you have to take that leap of faith and you have to ask yourself that most difficult of questions for yourself and by yourself.  In the words of James Althusser, you have to ‘choose yourself’.

In my own profession there is a very clear route that we might want to call career progression.  It’s easy to see the map play out from where you currently hone your craft to where you want to be.  If you learn the rules and follow the instructions it’s perfectly possible to tread the path.  It’s the road well-travelled.  But it’s also a road that narrows.  The further you go, the more rules there are to be cognisant of because, at heart, that is what responsibility looks like.  As a school governor I’m acutely aware of the legislation and guidance frameworks within which we operate, and mostly these serve a purpose because they define our common purpose.  But however valid these rules are, however developed my understanding of these becomes, it doesn’t stop that nagging voice from pecking away at the back of my mind: is there a different way?

And then the answer hit me.  Reading that email brought it all into focus.  There is, and it’s been there all along.  I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.

I’ve been looking around for different opportunities over the last year.  I stepped away from departmental and school leadership in 2014.  Since September of 2015 I’ve taught English in a wonderful school that continually recharges and energises me.  As such I’ve felt ready to get stuck in again, to progress.  To this end I’ve sought out and been involved in experiences that I’ll be able to press into service when I’m ready to apply for a new post.  Some of the these experiences have been school based (such as governance) and and others are things that I’ve dipped my toe into to widen my professional skills base: podcasting, motivating, coaching, writing.  All the while I’ve been trying to reconcile school-based experiences with the other professional activities I’ve been pursuing.  All the while I’ve been looking for the ‘best-fit’ role, for there must be one out there.  All the while I’ve been asking myself: how can a message of being happier work for schools, for teachers, for children?  How can motivational speaking have an impact on wellbeing in schools? How can coaching in schools transform outcomes?  And, most of all I’ve been asking myself: where is the role that unites these?

The email indirectly contained the answer: there isn’t one.  I’ve not just been looking in the wrong place; the reality is it doesn’t exist.  The email had inadvertently solved the puzzle for me by pointing out that unless I take action to create my own pathway I’m going to enter my fifties still being asked to do the most basic of tasks.  I’m not willing to accept that this is where my life is heading.

Of course, the email didn’t directly speak to my current situation.  Instead, through its polite requesting that I do something that I ordinarily do anyway served as a prompt, a reminder that unless I start to really exercise my own creativity I’ll be destined, solely, to follow the rules and instructions that have already been written for me.  That email jolted me back to the present.  It brought me back to a present in which I feel empowered to wholeheartedly create my own roles.  Now is the time for me to create my own portfolio as teacher, coach, writer, governor, runner, film maker, photographer, creator, podcaster.  This is my manifesto for change.  Instead of waiting for the opportunity to arrive in which I can unite these overlapping skills and experiences, I am going to create it.  Quite what this looks like, I don’t know yet.  I haven’t planned out all of the details, but I have liberated myself from the notion that the only way we make progress in our careers is by following the instructions and the rules that someone else has written before.  It’s time to choose myself.  I know that I want to continue to teach, and to teach as well as I possibly can.  But I also know that I am called to spread the word about how important our own happiness and mental health is.  We get one life.  My purpose in mine is to help others, both children and adults alike, to live it well.  Both inside and outside the physical constraints of the classroom I feel compelled to help others to realise their untapped potential to do so much more than they ever dreamed possible.  I’ve written and produced podcast episodes and created content on YouTube, I’ve written blogs and coached.  I want to do more of this.  I enjoy the feeling that I get when someone takes the time out to say that, in some small ways, it’s helped them out.  Now is the time to say that small is not enough. I want to go all in.   I’ve had enough of cautiously dipping my toe in the water while waiting for someone else to come along and approve it.  I am going to create my own version of a life in which these skills and experiences unite and inspire others to take action, to encourage others to strive for their goals, to succeed in school and in life.  That’s the life role I want to create for myself.

It’s been on my mind for a while now.  A few weeks ago we had a family day out.  We’d travelled north to the seaside town of Morecambe to a water-based play area in a municipal park.  We needed to.  The weather had been glorious for what seemed like weeks.  Summer, although not fully underway, seemed like it had already been with us forever.  The air was warm.  The sun was strong.  The sky was blue.  Life was good.  We had a few hours to kill before our allotted time in the waterpark, and so, lunchtime being not far away we found ourselves seated in a lovely little cafe watching the world go by and ordering some food.  I’m nosey so I had a good look around the place.  I quickly realised that all of the patrons appeared to be drawn from the same archetype:  late middle age, shuffling from table to door and from door to counter.  They were all overweight, the men massively so.  Every.  Single.  One.  I could no more imagine any of them enjoying an active life, let alone running, than I could imagine any of them eating healthily.  Each was tucking into some form of stodgy food: pies and chips seemed to be a particular favourite. It is no exaggeration. I’m not creating this scenario to serve the point of this blog post, and I’m certainly not passing judgement.  I’ve previously struggled as much as the next person when it comes to making the healthier choice.  There is no moral value attached to my observation.  Here is the point though: I thought to myself that it can’t be by chance that each of these people have found themselves slipping into retirement wearing the same elasticated clothing.  They are simply following the rules: we age, we gain weight, we become less physically active.  And the rule is a lie.  The instruction is flawed.  Perhaps the ‘inevitability’ of ageing, and our culturally defined acceptance of it, is the greatest testimony to our ability to blindly follow the rules and follow the instructions regardless of the consequences.  It appeared that not a single person tucking in to their food had the imagination to follow a different path.

So, this is it.  I can’t afford to waste anymore time waiting for the opportunity to come along in which these disparate strands of my own life come neatly packaged together in a job description that someone else has written.  It’s time to write my own; time to tread my own path.  I don’t mean this as a defiant act of rebellion.  I will always defend the standards that teachers should and must hold themselves to.  I’m not a maverick; I have a role and I will continue to do it as well as I possibly can.  But I am at that point where I believe that my personal version of progression lies within the wider professional skills that I’m developing.  I know I can be of greater use, of greater service, of greater help to learners of all needs wherever they may be found on their own journey through life.  That’s where my own journey has taken me, and that ordinary email helped to realise that this is just the start.

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Marcus Chester, teacher, teaching, happiness coaching, the happy teacher podcast

We go again

Sometime soon, we go again.

The details will differ.  The locations, rooms, names, times, meetings, and agendas will be wrapped up in the contexts within which we work.  But the essential business will remain.  Namely: how can we do this even better?

To some this is exhausting.  I get it.  I know it can be.  I have been exhausted and wrung out by it all too.  The feeling that nothing is ever good enough.  A feeling that almost always comes from within.  Years ago now a colleague asked me for a link to my tracking spreadsheet.  For a bewildering twenty minutes his words revolved around my head but failed to latch onto the image or idea of a spreadsheet.  I simply couldn’t work out what he meant.  I was exhausted.

I’m not now though.  I haven’t been for a long time.  I’m excited again.  Just like I was for the whole of last year.  And the whole of the year before.

Nothing is permanent.  Other than change.  And I need to continue to welcome this change throughout this next academic year.  It’s change that lies at the heart of a creative classroom.  The room is blank.  The paper is blank.  The air is still.  Nothing happens. And then change.  Change within the first five minutes of a lesson that can, sometimes, last a lifetime.  Think about that.  Think about that and then fail to be anything other than excited.  Deeply satisfied.

Teachers, eh.  We take the stillness, the calm, the silence. And then we shape the thoughts and word of others.  It’s a craft.  We take the absence of knowledge and skills and create understanding.  We move minds.  Challenge.  Support.

And then we go again.

Feedback

I’m feeding back to Yr11. They have just completed mock examinations in GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature.  The process has several aims.  The broader aim is to provide accurate information about where the cohort is at this point in time.  We know what the targets are; we need to know how are they performing in relation to those.  The narrower aim is to ensure that individual students know their strengths and area for development.  They need clear instruction on how to improve.  This is the most important outcome.

Ok, so far so straightforward.  We all know the evidence: formative assessment with lots of feedback, alongside structured opportunities to use that feedback, enhances achievements.  It seems self-evident.  And yet my through my reading and lurking on various threads I’m not convinced that, as teachers of English, we have fully grasped what feedback is (and isn’t).  Even a short spell on Twitter reveals an abundance of methodological and pedagogical approaches towards what (in my mind anyway) has always been simple.  My theory is that the exponential growth of ways in which we provide feedback is probably linked to a collective nervousness about what constitutes outstanding practice.  I’ve certainly seen many examples of feedback strategies that appear to prioritise form over content; image over impact.  But it’s just a theory…

Of the thousands of lessons that I’ve taught and the hundreds I’ve observed, these are the salient points around which I base practice.

Feedback is not advice or guidance; it’s not a judgement.  Feedback is framed by its reference to goals.  In the English examinations this means that comments should relate to the purpose of the piece.  Any comments can only be considered to be feedback if they relate to being on track towards meeting that goal or if the student needs to think about a different strategy in their attempt to meet that goal.

Feedback needs to be clear; it is not feedback if the student has to work out what they think you mean.  Feedback should be tangible and explicit.  It should be evident what the student needs to do to improve because feedback needs to be actionable.  Students should know what they need to do more or less of next time round in order to improve.

Feedback is for the students only.  Feedback is not the place for a teacher to demonstrate their own subject knowledge, or the place to demonstrate that they are meeting their own performance targets. If the student cannot understand it, if it is too technical, if it is confusing, or if there is simply too much of it it becomes counterproductive.

Feedback is timely; the sooner the student gets it the better.  It doesn’t need to be immediate, but the memory of the learning needs to be fresh and clear.  Timely feedback can be sought in a range of places and contexts.  Peer assessment and review can be really useful in this regard if students have been taught what feedback is and isn’t.

Feedback should be ongoing.  This means that there should be plenty of opportunities to make use of it. Highly performing people in all areas of life have the learned ability to very quickly adapt and adjust their performance in light of feedback.  The value of formative assessment is the fact that it precedes summative assessments.  Their is little (if any value) to feedback if there isn’t the subsequent opportunity to make use of it.

Feedback should be consistent; the more accurate it is the better.  This means (particularly at this point in the development of the new specifications) that teams should be standardising, moderating, sharing, discussing, and focusing on how marks are being allocated.  Avoiding the inevitable “we don’t know what these grades mean” should be a priority.  We know what sophisticated reading and writing looks like; that should be the starting point for embedding consistency.

A work in progress

I wrote the following in September 2002.  I was new in post as Second in English at Darwen Moorland High School (which closed in August of 2008).  I was a participant in a project that was coordinated by the Excellence in Cities initiative.  The writing was an attempt to reflect on learning, teaching, and progress in a school that, twelve months later, would be placed into Special Measures by Ofsted. 

“Yeah, it works. The plug’s a bit funny though. You might need to push it into the socket really hard.”

And with that my colleague leaves, heel-clicking his way down the ‘O Block’ corridor while happily singing a line from ‘Home On The Range’.

I look up hoping to see twenty nine faces.  Instead what meets me is an assortment of youngsters, most of whom are looking anywhere but at the front of the room; all I can see are the sides of their heads.  They look like they would rather be anywhere else but in my GCSE English class.  They aren’t misbehaving…yet.  They do look decidedly disinterested in what I am about to impart. Some chew gum; some attempt an impromptu experiment to test the strength of chair legs; some look timid, shy, embarrassed to be here; and others look like most teenagers I’ve worked with previously: a bewildering mixture of confidence, timidity, nervousness, arrogance, wit, and intelligence.

I push the plug in to the socket as hard as I can.

The TV screen is tiny. It is one of those TV/VHS combos and it represents the extent of the technology that I have to work with; oh, I also have a black marker pen.  Other than that it is going to be relationships, relationships and relationships that will get me to a position where I can teach well enough for the students to complete the five pieces of missing coursework.  At least I think that it is five.  No-one really seems to know exactly what they have completed.

I’ve devised a piece of media coursework that compares two film texts.  More specifically it aims to compare the  CGI violence in some scenes from Gladiator with the slapstick violence in There’s Something About Mary.  I think that the choice of material, alongside the focus for the assessment, will generate some interest, and by using that as a starting point I can build some momentum with a group that the Headteacher describes as ‘challenging’.  It’s little wonder.  They have had a succession of supply teachers throughout Year Ten, including one who liked to play guitar to them.  What they haven’t had is the structured opportunity to complete any of their coursework.  Now, with their final year underway, they know that they are behind.

I press play.

Someone shouts, “It’s crap, this.”

I press pause.

Problem.  The comment is loud and aimed in my direction.  I have no idea who said it though.  It is to be my first test.  But, before I can do anything about it it happens again, only this time it is accompanied by laughter.

“It’s crap, this.”

Now I’ve only been teaching for two years.  I don’t have the experience to defuse this situation with a group that I don’t know.  I do however have my marker pen. So I decide to write it out on the whiteboard.  Large, thick letters.

IT’S CRAP, THIS.

Not a sound; no-one laughs when I repeat it clearly.  I can sense the room shift slightly.  Chairs are being lowered.  Voices are hushed.  I have their attention.  It can be uncomfortable when 29 pairs of eyes stare in your direction; for a teacher it is a gift.  I take full advantage.

“What’s the problem with this statement?  Why would we not write this about the films in our coursework?” I ask.  It’s a risky question, but at this point in time it is all that I have.

A lone voice, “It’s not good English.”

“Great.  What would be a better way of phrasing this?”  I tap at the board paying particular emphasis to the very word that has unexpectedly initiated the discussion.

Some hands.  Great.  Some shouting out too; but I can live with that for now.  At least I can see their faces.

“Why don’t we write down some better ways of saying this.”

Then another voice, “But what if I like the films?” and, “We’ve not even seen the films yet.”

And so it starts.  We look at the clips; we read lines of dialogue that I’ve typed up.  Over the next few weeks they start to trust me enough to enable them show me their efforts. They are raw.  They know about films, they understand the violence, but they don’t have the language to be able to write effectively about them.  So I model phrases relentlessly.  My conversations with them are peppered with the key words that I’d like them to use eventually in their own responses.  Perhaps most importantly, I explain that what they do now, as Year 11 students, will have an impact on their final grades.  This is the purpose of coursework, I explain: you can make progress now that we can measure, and this will contribute towards your final grade.  The thoughts that you have now, the very thoughts that you write down, can help you to write pieces of work that will have an impact on your final grades.

I repeat my mantra, “Together, you can make progress.”

They say that they are enjoying the work.  I ignore them because it is still the honeymoon period where classes will often flatter you in the hope of getting you to ease off the pace later on in the year.  But at heart I know that they are enjoying it because they are starting to ask about grades.  This is a tangible benefit of coursework: you can structure it to contribute towards a purposeful working environment.  And boy do they need to be purposeful.  For most the notion of writing at length is novel and they are initially reluctant to do it; but as they start, cross out, and start again they start to see the point.  A couple of students look like they might actually be enjoying it.

Another benefit of coursework: imagination and enjoyment.  The only limits to what you can do are practical.  In a school like this, with resources as poor as outcomes, these practical considerations are real, frustrating, and serve to further the all too evident inequalities between schools.  But with a teacher’s imagination and resilience, coursework becomes the place where risks can be taken and where students can find their voice in ways that the examinations simply do not have the flexibility to accommodate.  I take every opportunity to explain that this is what writers do: think, draft, redraft, edit.

So, I’m making the most of the fact that these Year Eleven students are behind.  I’ve changed my mindset: they have five opportunities to demonstrate that their efforts will contribute towards their final grades in a meaningful way.  I enjoy the fact that students are peppering their conversations with me with references to grades, drafting, and redrafting.

Nobody has repeated that it’s crap, this.  That appears to have been edited out.

Time. And time again.

I’ve just spent a coaching session with a highly motivated, energetic and imaginative teacher.  We’ll call her Karen.  She approached me with one main question that I’ve heard countless times before: how do I get to the end of the working day feeling that I am organised and in control?

Some context:

Karen and I have spoken to each other and used FaceTime to connect for four coaching sessions.  It became clear to me during our initial chat that the GROW model for coaching would be useful.  It can be summarised very simply as:GENERIC-GROWCoachingModel

Today’s session was focused on the fourth stage of the process.  Our objective was to leave the session with a clear list of what Karen will do to address her original question, which again was:

How do I get to the end of the working day feeling that I am organised and in control? 

Karen had previously read about and tried some time management techniques, but these tended to be about managing small units of time.  Without a structured day to place these into, such techniques would only ever have limited impact.  Indeed, Karen tried them.  She abandoned them.  She subsequently became more confused, stressed and anxious.

Why was Karen anxious?  What did she say about her day?

Karen felt that she was always on the ‘last minute’ and also felt that she ‘wasted time’ before she even got to work by checking a multitude of social media accounts for updates.  She acknowledged that these accounts were not work related.

Karen felt that she ‘wasted time’ choosing what to wear in the morning and felt that she ‘couldn’t think clearly enough to choose at that time’.

Karen was ‘highly anxious’ about her journey to work and most mornings she hit the peak traffic.

Karen checked her email as soon as she arrived at work and then became anxious that she was ‘not fully prepared’ for her lessons.

Karen would ‘binge-mark/assess’.  The periods when she wasn’t marking caused her anxiety, as did the ‘ever- increasing pile of books’ that were waiting to be marked.

Karen would bring ‘too much work’ home, and write ‘too much’ on her to-do lists.

What will Karen do?

Remember, this is a coaching process, so the following are the ‘WILLS’ that Karen formulated for herself with my help.

I will get up at the same time each day.  I will not use the snooze button.

I will use an alarm clock.  I will not use my phone alarm.

I will leave my phone turned off and will leave it downstairs.

I will prepare what I want to wear the evening before.

I will leave for work at the same time each day.

I will arrive at work at 7:15 AM each day.

I will use the time from 7:15 AM until 8:25 AM to prepare my lessons.

I will use the time from 7:15 AM until 8:25 AM to prepare what I will do in my non-contact time.

I will use the time from 3:30 PM until 5:00 PM to reflect/prepare lessons for the following day (30 minutes) and for marking books (1 hour)

I will use the time from 5:00 PM until 5:15 PM to read email, reply to email

I will leave work at 5:20 PM.

In further sessions we’ll look at how this is helping Karen to implement structure into her day, before looking at some very specific strategies to micro-manage her time.  Karen felt that she needed to see the big picture of her day before looking at the smaller parts.

If you would like to discuss ways in which coaching can help you to be more fulfilled, efficient, and most importantly, happier, then I’d love to hear from you.  You can click here to find out more.

 

 

Excellence

Excellence.

Until recently I thought that it was a word that could not be applied to me.  I could only use it when talking about others.

One day I was asked by someone, as part of a development exercise, to make a list of the things that I had done with my life that could be seen as personal achievements. With a sharp intake of breath I wrote: a happy marriage; two beautiful children; several degrees; a professional career… I stopped in embarrassment. Mine was a positive list of treasures and I felt shallow and self-absorbed to be nothing other than delighted with how my first forty years had panned out. Why then did I not feel qualified to use the E word?

And then it hit me. Those were things that I had accomplished in spite of myself.  My general frame of mind was far from excellent and my previous lifestyle choices and behaviours were not conducive to achieving anything other than an expanding waistline, problematic health and a general feeling that I did not have a grip on myself and my life. To an outsider the outcomes may have appeared successful, but I knew the process was haphazard, patchy, frustrating, and in many respects characterised by self-sabotaging behaviours. My habits were far from excellent and any success that I’d had felt superficial. I’d never really put everything on the line in the pursuit of excellence and I felt like I could give and achieve so much more with a better philosophy.  More importantly, I was far from being happy and this affected every facet of my life including my relationships.

I did something about it; I had to.  When the wheels come off you’ve only two choices: denial or growth.

Through relentless reading, listening, talking and learning I came to realise that personal excellence occurs when goals, attitudes, mindsets and behaviours are aligned.  You can’t fake personal excellence.  This is where I’d had it all wrong: my ‘excellence’ was an act and not a habit.

I came to realise that personal excellence is the grind, the work, the slog.  It’s far from glamorous and it’s never the outcome, it’s the habitual routine. I’m never going to be the world record holder for the marathon, but I can still work hard to become the best runner that I can be; the best teacher that I can be; the best parent that I can be; and the best version of myself that I can be.  This is my understanding of personal excellence: when you’ve risked it all, when you’ve made the sacrifice, when you’ve learned from your mistakes and when you’ve, in the words of Pindar, ‘exhausted the limits of the possible’. It may be cliched, but it really is all about the habit.

In 2015 I decided to make the effort to help others wherever I could.  My aim then (as now) is to reach out to people who feel they would benefit from help to unleash their potential, set free their ambition, and liberate the best version of themselves.  I’ve always approached teaching children in this way.  It is an honour to be able to help others to realise that the most significant barriers to success are most often fictional – unhelpful stories that they and others have repeatedly articulated.  The status quo is always a flimsy narrative.

This blog attempts to capture what I learn along the way.

If, like me, you want to #BeHappier, I’d love to hear from you.  You can click here to find out more.