MH: This time last year

This series of guest posts come from an educator who wants to share their experiences to highlight and normalise issue around teacher mental health.

 

I have felt scared before, but finally writing this blog has erupted various feelings and emotions and I am not quite sure I can pinpoint just one. This has been a long time coming, and today, while I sit in isolation from the world (except my family), I have decided that now is the time. This blog will be in several parts. It has taken a lot of courage to write this and revisiting painful experiences can be just as hard as living through them at the time… but this time with some perspective and a clearer mind.

 

After suffering a massive mental breakdown last year, stepping back into social media was something that I never imagined I would ever do. Strange as it sounds, before making the decision to delete my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, I would obsess for hours, trawling through people’s profiles, searching for something, anything that would connect me to the ‘outside’ world. I struggled to accept I was having a breakdown, to accept that my brain was so powerful that it could stop me from doing the simplest of things; getting out of bed; getting dressed; getting into my car and into the school I loved working at. I went from being the life and soul of the party, the laughter in the corridors, the one that ‘fixes’ everything, to being a person I did not recognise. Just think for a minute, I did not recognise who I was! I knew my name, where I lived, the fact that I had a husband and children. But I was vacant, ‘out of order’, no longer working. My brain just said no.

 

The breakdown happened almost overnight. I had suffered a panic attack the day before and then, the following day, I woke up confused, anxious, afraid and utterly dismayed by the thoughts going through my head. I have suffered from anxiety in the past, but I have always been artful at managing it (or so I thought). When I faced the prospect of being at work, around colleagues and students, I simply could not muster the strength to get out of bed. Aside from the fact that I had symptoms of food poisoning, I felt utterly helpless. I was on a continuous pendulum. Crying, pacing the house, struggling to breathe, sleeping on the sofa, flicking channels on the TV, eating, not eating, and calling my parents in a state, and round in this cycle all day long. By the time my husband would come home from work, I would be exhausted from the days ‘madness’, and yet there was never any let up unless I was asleep (which never lasted more than a few hours).

 

My frustration and anger towards myself grew daily. Why was I so stupid? What the hell was wrong with me? Why can’t I just ‘get a grip’? JUST GET A GRIP! The more I berated myself, or had these negative thoughts, the more I struggled to do just that… get a grip. I hated myself for allowing this to happen and for being so weak. That is how I felt. Weak. And this weakness ate away at me every minute of every day. I felt like I had let everyone down and that no one would ever forgive me for the pathetic state I found myself in.

 

Struggling to understand what people were saying to me made day to day life challenging. I knew that the language people spoke was one I too, could talk, but I simply could not understand anything people said. This misunderstanding led to many evenings of me snapping at my husband, children, family and friends. And then the self-hate continued into the night. I’m a rubbish wife, a worthless mother, a terrible daughter and a crap friend. What was the point? And then it happened. What was the point? I clung onto this idea for weeks until one night, I sat alone, contemplating whether my family and friends would be better off without me. Never in all my life, had I ever got to the point where I would ever consider committing suicide— even writing that now, brings a pang to my heart. I knew people who had done so and have seen first-hand what the impact of this has been on the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Yet here I was, thinking about the best way to do it so that my children would be least effected and wouldn’t go on living with the fact that their mother decided enough was enough.

 

This was the turning point for me. The downturn spiral was fast and if I did not try to seek help, things would only get worse. I took to Facebook and asked my local community for therapists. I was inundated with contacts. A hurdle in itself as going through them all was quite a task. Eventually, I called one and spoke to a wonderful woman who referred me to the person who I now consider to have been one of my ‘life lines’. After a few sessions, Becky was able to sift through my thoughts and decipher my ramblings, getting me to consider why I felt the way I did. It was clear to her that I was self-destructive, always feeling the need to validate my worth and value and that I had suffered colossal trauma in my earlier life which was beginning to come back and haunt me. I had to accept that things had happened to me when I was younger and my reactions, feelings and thoughts when someone would treat me in a particular way only fuelled those same feelings and thoughts at a time when I felt most helpless.

 

So why have I decided to do this now? Recognising now that I was not alone in my feelings of despair and confusion, I look back and wish that I could have found someone that knew what I was going through. Someone who would tell me I was not alone and that I would get through this awful time. And so for me, I have decided to write this series of blogs for those people suffering in silence, suffering and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I couldn’t see it for a long time, but I did, and the tunnel is slowly disappearing.

 

This is so difficult. I know that this is not a completed ‘story’. I promise it does get better and isn’t all doom and gloom, but at this point, I need to take a breath.

 

 

 

 

Free Resource for Supporting Pupils’ Emotional Wellbeing Part 2

This amazing resource comes from Alice N’diaye.

This is part 2: Inclusive Anxiety and Emotional

Part 1 can be found here.

I have put together a selection of over 30 picture books that children and families might find helpful at the moment.  They support the key elements of social and emotional learning and, as learning happens best when children see themselves, I have tried to be as inclusive as possible.  I have also included additional resources; songs, sketches, shorts with similar themes and aims.

The bulk of the material came from CBeebies and Sesame Street (via YouTube) which are definitely worth exploring if you haven’t before.

Please note this was created, quickly,  for use with pupils and their families for digital story-times during school closures or to support PSHE delivery at this difficult time.  I have used YouTube links to enable equity of access; I hope authors and illustrators are okay with this.  I am sure that many readers will be inspired by what they read and will buy a book or two if they can.   Any suggestions of additional books (with digital version) or resources will be gratefully received. 😊

Download the full resource with links here

Three Tips for Self-Care: Educators and Teachers

This blog also featured here. Andrew Milne has put together a set of microblogs for April 2020 head over and enjoy.

Ironically, I am writing this blog on a Saturday night while drinking a glass of white wine, thinking I really should relax more. Andrew Milne has asked me to describe ways in which educators can benefit from self-care.

Before I start the journey, let’s start with the core purpose or the why around ‘self-care’.I often hear teachers state that they never take time off when they’re sick, that they will not let the children down, and the children come before everything.
Although commendable, this is highly problematic. If we start with the last statement that the children are the most critical aspect of our profession, then the previous two comments don’t make sense.
The children we serve deserve to have healthy, well and happy teachers. Self-care is not an act of the self; it is fundamentally an act of giving, it is neither selfish or indulgent, self-care is essentially part of your job and duty to the young people we serve.

Tip 1

If we look at ‘time for yourself’ as an act of work and part of your duty, then treat it as such. Many teachers will factor in time to grade or mark papers and set aside everything else in this time as it must be done. I would advocate doing the same thing but with an act with which you choose to recharge. Personally, I knit, now that may sound silly to many of you. However, this is part of my self-care routine. The act of setting aside five minutes, where I sit with my needles in perfect concentration every couple of hours during this isolation has been a godsend. I am 100 % sure it has also made me more productive in all of my daily tasks.

Tip 2

Value your mental health as much as you value your physical health. Actually, scratch that, you are all educators and lots of us put our physical health to the back of the queue. While working it’s challenging to escape from the high-pressure environment and assess where you fall on the spectrum of okay to not okay.
If you break your leg, a doctor will often rest the leg and keep your weight off it for a prolonged period. Resting your brain does not work in the same way as you cannot keep the burden or the strain of the weight off of it.
My way of evaluating my current state is to check in with people who I trust regularly. These are people I bear the content of my mind to regularly. I share my feelings, my thoughts and my reactions and they are much better placed to judge my mental well-being than I am when I am either ill or becoming more sick or pressured.

Tip 3

As many of you know, I suffer from appearances from the ‘Black dog’, excuse the colloquialism from the UK. The Black dog represents depression. This analogy means that the dog returns time and time and weighs us down and/or stays in the shadows, hindering our progress as the mental illness does.
One of the symptoms of depression is the loss of joy; I often curse myself for this ailment because not only does my brain tell me to be sad every day it also refuses to take comfort in the remedies I try.

For this final tip, I would say listen to your brain. Yes, it’s great to train for a marathon or to learn a new language or to play the violin at the highest level. However, it’s essential to listen to your brain instead of telling it what you think you should be doing. If your mind says have a duvet day, listen and dig under the duvet, stay in bed and make a fortress. If your brain says go and do some exercise, do that exercise. Educators are experts in telling our pupils what’s right for them. Sometimes we don’t need someone to say to us; sometimes we just need to listen.

How to Home School.

This blog also appears here. This piece is from Prof. Colin Diamond of the University of Birmingham.

As the schools close for all but the most vulnerable children or those with parents and carers in key jobs suddenly you are the teacher. And your new job could last for many months. My guess would be that in England, we won’t see schools re-opening before September.

So, this situation raises lots of anxieties for adults who are staying at home and teaching. What’s the best approach? How can I be mum or dad and switch to being teacher? How can I become the best teacher I can be? Will I be good enough for my kids at perhaps a crucial stage of their education with tests and exams in the year ahead?

At the same time, our children are confused, frightened, disappointed and angry by what’s happening and you are likely the people they will look to both vent their frustrations and be supported and loved at the same time. Teaching in one-to-one or small group situations is intense. When pupils and students are in a normal class there is space for them to self-regulate their learning just as we do as adults. So they will have lots of mini downtimes, go for a walk in-class, talk with friends etc. And the class teacher is constantly scanning to make sure that everyone is on task for most of the time – that’s key, ‘for most of the time’.

Classes aren’t (or shouldn’t be) production lines. The best learning comes when the children are relaxed and they don’t learn in a linear, mechanical fashion.

For those with teenagers, there are a whole extra set of issues as they ‘individuate’ from parents and become young people in their own right whilst still needing enormous dollops of unconditional love. Their mood swings are likely to be intensified by feelings of confinement at a stage in their lives when they want to stretch their wings and leave the nest.

And those teenagers will probably know a lot more about the subjects they are studying than you do. There will be specialist areas that you won’t be able to help them with – don’t try! They have subject teachers whose professional lives are all about that distillation of knowledge.

Plus, things may have changed since you were at school. It’s not just about Google being the default to answering any question. Teaching and learning have become more sophisticated with the kind of performance metrics that you might associate with athletes and football players. It is all much more scientific.

Your children’s school will most likely be offering on-line learning activities and be guided by them in the first instance. They know your children best and will offer a balanced range of things to do based on the syllabus they are accustomed to in class. There’s lots of ‘celebrity’ content out there with some real quality but best use it as a back-up or reward after the school’s work is done.

Be wary of commercial on-line activities that may claim to turbocharge learning. In most cases, they won’t. There are snake oil peddlers in education just like every other walk of life. The commercial companies are seeing this as a huge business opportunity and social media is already awash with the ‘best ever’ products.

Finally, teaching is bloody hard work and it’s most stressful when you are learning your craft as a newly qualified teacher. Expect to feel tired, with highs and lows every day. Give yourself ‘me time’ and reward yourself if possible as you have taken on a professional job with 3 days notice.

Good luck – we might be signing you up for training at the end of this if you get an appetite for teaching. And you will certainly appreciate what your children’s teachers do day-in-and-day-out in school.

Twelve Top Tips
Here are some tips that should help your job induction: congratulations – you are now the teacher!

1. Routines are really important and your children will need them as the structure of their lives has suddenly been altered in a way they won’t have experienced before. Work hard to establish and stick to routines. Without turning your home into a military-style regime, start times, breaks and end times will help everyone. And they will become important boundaries for the months at home together. This will be a long haul.

2. Be clear when you are in your job as teacher – this will help. You can play the role with young children in lots of fun ways and negotiate with the teenagers, just like you do on normal boundary setting.

3. Set up a weekly timetable to get going. If you have printing facilities get it up on the wall so everyone can see it and you can take your children through what’s planned. Give it a week and review what’s worked and what didn’t. Build in a balance of the core subjects of English and Maths with other subjects, if you are confident. The school should provide the basic guidance here but you can find lots of model lessons online for free – many teachers are busy right now recording activities you will find on the school’s website.

4. Make sure your children have some physical movement during your lessons and when you change activities. It’s so important to keep the kinaesthetic movement going, even in the smallest of spaces. This means some level of physical activity to complement table-based learning. Dancing along to YouTube videos will work for both of you.

5. If your children are doing GCSE courses or similar, for most of the time they will receive detailed guidance from schools. Your role in most subjects, unless you are a physicist or geologist, will be limited. But you may be able to help with the quality of written tasks, testing out ideas and opening up to learning from them. You are a captive audience!

6. Praise, rewards and sanctions – we know that the golden rule is lots of praise and little criticism to motivate children in most circumstances. You can incentivise your children by praising their efforts and perseverance as well as the work they produce. Invent rewards that will work according to your children’s ages – from simple things like star charts you can print or draw to whatever works best with your teenagers. They will need to feel a bit grown up and definitely part of the solution when it comes to deciding what constitutes a fair reward and isn’t perceived to be childish.

7. Space – give your children space to learn within your flat or house. This means literally if you are able to set up class in one part of a bedroom or the kitchen, and also psychologically. Teachers will be working their way around the class like a honey bee seeking pollen, with a stop here and a stop there. So your children will not be accustomed to high levels of individual attention.

8. Rites of passage – your children may feel cheated because they missed out on that Year 6 trip in June or the school prom. There will be lots of emotional pain because they didn’t expect to say goodbye to their teachers and classmates so quickly. This is not an area for the timetable you set up, but one to be aware of as it will surface, sometimes at unexpected times. You can plan for the future with your children when there will be opportunities to pick up some of these incomplete threads in their lives.

9. Learn together – you will do this instinctively with your children as they grow and it’s one of the best things about being a parent. Now you have the opportunity to build it into your teacher routines when you have set a project that will last a few days or weeks. Choose a topic that interests both of you and go for it!

10. Screen time – keep it under control exactly as they do in school. The internet is a tool for knowledge and learning, but not the end product. It’s technology that we teach children to navigate at school to learn what is safe and what is dangerous, also what information can be trusted and how to use it. Your children may be more sophisticated users of PowerPoint than you but they won’t necessarily have the skills to filter out the information they need.

11. Homework? This might sound like a bad joke in the circumstances but it’s a serious point! Your older children will be accustomed to long spells of working alone, particularly in the run up to exams. For those who have examinations in 2021, maintaining this habit will be important to build up more knowledge and deep analysis that modern GCSEs and A levels require.

12. And don’t forget fun. I always found that cooking easy dishes like pizzas and fairy cakes worked a treat with small groups. They enjoy the physical contact with the raw materials, can see it cook and there’s instant gratification when they eat the end product. Definitely something to have on your timetable, Miss or Sir.

Honestly, Honesty or being Honest with Yourself

Let me be honest; leadership is hard, I’m not referring the work, the hours or even the pressure. It’s the emotional burden it takes, rarely do school leaders talk openly about this element of the game.

Leadership is about direction, change and a relentless drive for something bigger than ourselves and more significant than the sum of the team. Change is hard, even if the environment is in disarray organisation will resist change because change brings uncertainty – and who knows it may get worse. No one said any of this is rational. 

Organisations will follow the path of least resistance (Fullan 2004) when any change process causes resistance; this risks leading to a stagnant static collective mindset. However, inaction is an action in itself, creating capacity and the act of change management are covered elsewhere on this site. 

I want to focus on the unease caused by leaders on their followers. Yes, this is sometimes necessary; however, leaders use the experience to foster a feeling of safety through an environment of trust. After numerous conversations with peers (including Kathryn Morgan who has a wealth of knowledge on this subject) about professional discourse (I’ll write about this later), I’ve come to the salient conclusion that trust is built solely through dialogue and communication.

As a leader, you steer and point the organisation toward its destination, the decisions you make are based on the information and experiences we have. This week has been hard for every level of school life, including our pupils. Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and when you don’t know, you create your own reasons in your head. To ameliorate this, leaders keep people in the loop, and you tell them the direction persistently, you let them know where you are on the journey, you build a common language, you create a familiar sense of safety.

Here is the question I want to really ask though:

Are leaders ever honest with themselves?

In the US and indeed, the UK, the idea of transformative leadership is a dominant feature; a leader presents a vision and manipulates the culture and builds sustainable change in schools (Grint 2008). Grint goes on to describe systemic level issues with this apparent model leader are often entirely out of the remit of the leaders’ control (more here).

How many times have you recognised that unease and pressure, that buzzing behind your eyes is not the coffee, it is not just the high powered job, but that it is anxiety? This week I have seen some incredibly brave decision in the absence of vision from above. Arrangements have been made through a necessity for followers; this is bravery; this is leadership. This is leadership at its best; making decisions based on your purpose, your experience and the information you have is all done to put your followers and vision right.

Back to another version of the question.

What do leaders do to put themselves right?

I will come back to this at some point. 

Have an awesome weekend everyone. I think we all need it.

Free Resource for Supporting Pupils’ Emotional Wellbeing Part 1

This amazing resource comes from Alice N’diaye.

I have put together a selection of over 30 picture books that children and families might find helpful at the moment.  They support the key elements of social and emotional learning and, as learning happens best when children see themselves, I have tried to be as inclusive as possible.  I have also included additional resources; songs, sketches, shorts with similar themes and aims.

The bulk of the material came from CBeebies and Sesame Street (via YouTube) which are definitely worth exploring if you haven’t before.

Please note this was created, quickly,  for use with pupils and their families for digital story-times during school closures or to support PSHE delivery at this difficult time.  I have used YouTube links to enable equity of access; I hope authors and illustrators are okay with this.  I am sure that many readers will be inspired by what they read and will buy a book or two if they can.   Any suggestions of additional books (with digital version) or resources will be gratefully received. 😊

Wellbeingresourcealice

reourceswellbeing2

Download the full resource with links here.

Leadership – Raising Aspirations

This guest piece is from Executive Headteacher Stever Baker

Kilgarth and Gilbrook Schools are a hard federation of under-funded, maintained SEMH schools for children who are often coping with complex learning difficulties and distressing personal circumstances, in an area among the most deprived in the country.

In order to break the cycle of aspirational deprivation we often have to contend with, we set out on an ambitious project; we wrote to inspirational figureheads from around the globe, asking them to send us a signed photograph and some words of wisdom. We hoped to show our pupils that they do not need to face the challenges of the future alone and that they should aspire to achieve great things.  With the support of some local companies we collated the remarkable responses that we received and created a book; a copy was given to each student, with the hope that it would raise their personal aspirations.  Staff and governors were also given copies, recognising the important role that they play in developing better outcomes for our school family and wider community.  Our award-winning ‘Aspire’ project became the inspiration behind the naming of our new federation of schools.

Taking the learning from our project, my top five tips to raise aspirations, and promote well-being, amongst young people would be:

  1. Have high aspirations at the heart of your vision

We spent over 12 months developing a mission statement, vision, and values for our schools and engaged all stakeholders, including students, teachers, families, governors, psychologists, and members of the local community.  The result of our efforts can be seen in our mission statements.

1. Have high aspirations at the heart of your vision We spent over 12 months developing a mission statement, vision, and values for our schools and engaged all stakeholders, including students, teachers, families,… Click To Tweet
  1. Develop students’ resilience

Research has shown that the skills involved in resilience are almost as important as cognitive skills for achieving educational qualifications by adulthood.  To raise awareness of the importance of resilience we have a number of positive quotes adorning the walls in our school, one of which is: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”  The design of the displays was produced with the help of the students so they ‘bought into’ these values.

2. Research has shown that the skills involved in resilience are almost as important as cognitive skills for achieving educational qualifications by adulthood. To raise awareness of the importance of resilience we… Click To Tweet
  1. Create a culture where young people are offered a second chance

Who are we to judge? When our students make mistakes we always allow them the opportunity to have a second chance.  When challenging behaviour is displayed we should be very careful not to label children; we should not be asking ‘what is wrong with you?’ rather we should be asking ‘what happened to you?’ and ‘how can we help you overcome these challenges?’

Create a culture where young people are offered a second chance Who are we to judge? When our students make mistakes we always allow them the opportunity to have a second chance. When challenging behaviour is… Click To Tweet
  1. Promote solution focused conversations

A recent study from the Manchester Institute of Education explored the links between academic attainment and children’s mental health.  They reviewed gender differences and their findings suggested that increased testing and academic pressure in schools are likely to have a negative impact on mental health (particularly in girls).  Their report also indicated that children’s experience of school may be critical to the onset of mental health problems.  To promote a positive outlook, staff at both schools have embraced a coaching culture. This was originally introduced to support the emotional resilience of staff working in challenging environments, but we have also researched the positive impact that coaching has had on pedagogy.  Professor Walter Mischel, creator of the famous marshmallow test, suggested that using goal oriented thoughts helps us to develop levels of self-control which also further develops our resilience.

4. Promote solution focused conversations A recent study from the Manchester Institute of Education explored the links between academic attainment and children’s mental health. They reviewed gender differences and… Click To Tweet
  1. Celebrate success and promote well-being for all

Professor Roy Baumeister researched negativity bias, i.e. the fact that we tend to remember and focus more on negative experiences.  During these times of high stakes accountability, I believe that we should focus on delivering as many positive experiences for young people as possible. The latest research into neuroplasticity shows that the brain remains plastic throughout our entire lives and that by explicitly rewarding specific, positive behaviours we want to encourage, we are able to ‘hard-wire’ them into the young people we work with. Psychologists call this ‘The Matthew effect’ and it is based on accumulated advantage, namely the happier you are, the happier you will become and that by sharing happiness, you will be able to boost others’ well-being.

5. Celebrate success and promote well-being for all Professor Roy Baumeister researched negativity bias, i.e. the fact that we tend to remember and focus more on negative experiences. During these times of high stakes… Click To Tweet

We absolutely must commit ourselves to raising children’s aspirations but should also be mindful that with a reported ‘child mental health crisis’, emotional well-being should also be at the front of our minds; it should not be an optional extra.  I will leave you with the quote from the inspirational Liverpool boxer, Natasha Jonas, who personally handed out the books to our boys, following a series of boxing masterclasses she led for them:

“You have three names in life.  One you are given, one you inherit…and the other you make for yourself.”

Your Voice Matters.

I have spent most of my life feeling silenced, unable to utilise my voice for various reasons.

I have found my voice; thousands of people visit this site weekly. 

Now sharing and amplifying our voices feels like the right thing to do.

I have spent most of my life feeling silenced, unable to utilise my voice for various reasons. I have found my voice; thousands of people visit this site weekly. Now sharing and amplifying our voices feels like the right thing to do. Click To Tweet

My topics usually fall into three sections by no means is this constricted.

  1. Race, Equity and decolonisation.
  2. Mental Health of teachers and pupils.
  3. Leadership.

If you* have an idea, a view or story head over to the contact form here and let me know.

stock-photo-wisdom-power-words-talk-concept-behavior-perception-language-influence-9b99a8b8-f540-4ae4-90de-0ccfcf5cb604

*I would welcome responses from people who possess protected characteristics in redressing the balance.

Help Must Be Given To People Suffering Mental Illness at Work.

Having suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety and sleeplessness throughout his life, Patel revealed he had to take periods of time off work due to his mental health struggles.

He added the amount of support he received at work “differed”.

Patel, who is from Wolverhampton, had been advised against looking at senior roles in his profession as he could be perceived as “weak”.

“I’ve been told: ‘If you want to be a headteacher, chairs of governors and trustees, will think you are weak of character’,” he told Eastern Eye.

“I have worked in organisations with differing levels of support – from feeling like I was truly valued to feeling like I was a burden on the school.”

He believes the acceptance and support concerning mental health was dependent on the experiences of the leadership team.

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In one instance, when Patel reached out for help, he was told he would be going for an assessment to organise further support.

“This actually turned out to be a fitness to work interview,” Patel recalled. “I wasn’t even told [this would be happening].”

This is an extract from an interview by Eastern Eye, The rest of the article is

https://www.easterneye.biz/help-must-be-given-to-people-suffering-mental-illness-at-work/

Action Research – What works?

I have long been a fan of action research, I first engaged in action research in the classroom in the mid-2000s. As a leader or a practitioner, this piece is well worth a read.

The following is written by Mark Quinn.

It can also be found here. https://markquinn1968.wordpress.com/2019/09/20/what-works-teacher-action-research-works/

What was the Teacher Action Research Project?

Between October 2018 and June 2019 I delivered a Teacher Action Research Project – TARP – to a group of 8 secondary school teachers from across England, meeting on three occasions at UCL Institute of Education (IOE), where I work. The project was funded by UCL Widening Access and Participation, whose remit is to increase the uptake of places at leading universities by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The teachers chose themes and interventions that they judged likely to make a substantial difference to their own students: some focused on aspects of their classroom practice that they wished to adapt; others conducted their action research on an element of their wider school responsibility. The only stipulation was that they must concentrate on outcomes for their disadvantaged students.

The teachers chose themes and interventions that they judged likely to make a substantial difference to their own students: some focused on aspects of their classroom practice that they wished to adapt; Click To Tweet

Summary of the interventions and outcomes

Three were interested in the process of student learning; they were keen to increase their students’ awareness of how they learn, and to see the extent to which this would contribute to their academic progress. These projects may be labelled metacognitive strategies. The self-regulation of learners was a feature across several other projects. One hypothesised that, to address the demands of new linear exams at A level, teachers needed to address the metacognitive skills of their students and could best achieve this through explicit modelling of written responses; two English teachers conducted projects which focused on boosting subject-specific vocabulary in Key Stage 4. These three enquiries can be loosely grouped as language and literacy. One teacher, whose whole-school role embraces Careers Education, was interested in the link between students’ self-efficacy and realistic career choices; the project of the final practitioner-researcher saw her department take a range of new evidence-informed approaches to teaching Geography at Key Stage 3. These last two come under the very broad heading curriculum development but, like the rest, are complex interventions concerned largely with students’ self-regulation.

There were many common findings across the eight action research projects. Many saw student confidence as a prerequisite to progress; others saw that increased confidence was an outcome of their projects. The same could be said for the issue of teacher-student relationships: some saw them improve, while others identified them as a continuing threat to successful outcomes. Teaching strategies that placed an emphasis on student self-reflection, their metacognition and self-regulation all had promising results for disadvantaged students and others. Likewise, modelling of exemplar answers, emphasis on appropriate subject vocabulary and the embedding of strategies which force students to retrieve prior knowledge: greater focus upon these pedagogical approaches did bear fruit for many of the disadvantaged students whose progress was tracked. Not all projects succeeded on their own terms. Those where the number or complexity of interventions were greatest found it difficult to implement change or to track the impact of the changes they did implement. In some few cases, the participating teachers speculated that their innovation may have in some way hampered the progress of the students they were trying to help, but this was a minority finding. Others were able to reflect upon the extraneous factors which continue to impede the progress of their disadvantage students.

What TARP has to say about innovations that make a positive difference to disadvantaged students

Modelling

Modelling happened in several ways across the projects. In some cases this involved the use of a visualiser in class to highlight features of exemplary practice; in another it included the repeated use of model answers provided by exam boards; one teachers referred to the ‘talking aloud’ strategy, whereby the teacher models their thinking as they construct an answer ‘live’ in front of their class. One found that ‘it was clear that all students, disadvantaged or not, wanted to see what excellence looked like and had a genuine thirst for knowledge.’ The progress of her High Prior Attaining Pupil Premium students improved, but so did that of most of the rest of the two Year 11 English classes in her study. Another – who had analysed the planning and teaching of A level subjects that had performed well since the reintroduction of linear exams – wanted to see what lessons could be learned by those departments whose results had dipped. A student survey identified more modelling of exam questions as the area that would help them improve the most. Teachers in two subjects agreed to a six-week implementation of explicit modelling – specifically of exam board answers and typically within homework – and to track the impact upon the bursary students through internal assessment and mock exams. In maths half the bursary students in the set improved their grade while the rest remained as they were. The picture was similar in economics, where one bursary student improved their grade while the other remained static.

Building good relations and a culture of trust

One teacher contended that ‘establishing a culture of trust within a class is central to students making progress.’

Some participating teachers pointed to the trust that was an outcome of involvement in the project. One (who did a lunchtime group intervention focused on the students’ knowledge retrieval skills) saw that ‘as the interventions progressed, the girls started to become more and more accountable for each other and encouraging one another to meet the demands of their courses.’ She spotted a relationship between that burgeoning culture of trust in the group and their regard for themselves as learners, which (for all but one of the group) improved also. Another noted that, the more familiar his Year 13 English Literature students were with simple cognitive processes and the rationale behind the approaches to feedback he was taking, the more they trusted him and the tasks he was setting.

 

Student confidence

For this teacher, this trust in him and his teaching was a contributory factor in the students’ growing confidence going into their exams. One of his students said she had begun to ‘trust my own thinking’.

Among one teacher’s Year 10s, after the four months of her careers and options guidance programme

‘82% of the students felt that they were now more confident to make decisions related to their career paths highlighting that the project has been somewhat successful in breaking down the barriers to career self-efficacy and increasing student confidence.’

She concluded that it was the early and structured nature of the intervention which helped the students be more confident in their decision-making.

A geography teacher, implementing a new Key Stage 3 curriculum, explicitly measured the confidence of her students using ‘feedback circles’ in the lessons. She and her colleagues were alarmed at the high rate of students describing themselves as within the ‘panic zone’ when they were asked to think hard. But, persisting with their innovations – and in particular the demand that their students ‘speak like a geographer’ – they found gradually that ‘most of the students moved out of the panic zone and into the stretch zone’.

Teaching which boosts vocabulary

An English teacher noticed that students, who were unfazed at the prospect of producing two to three pages of work would still feel anxious about giving ‘the right answer’, and this stopped them writing. A ‘heightened focus on relevant terminology’ was one of the factors leading to improved progress for Pupil Premium students with higher prior attainment. The geography teacher’s students, as they moved out of their panic zone, began to expand their discipline vocabulary.

‘This started to finally pay off and after a few weeks teachers and students started to use these words as a matter of course (in the interviews this is something teachers referred to again and again and were quite amazed by.)’

Another English teacher delighted that some of her students had become ‘word hungry’ – asking for vocabulary and prepared to use the thesaurus – but she sounded a warning note too.

‘Students accessed and used a range of complex and higher level vocabulary that they would otherwise either not have the tools or confidence to access… Students are empowered when given tailored vocabulary – however students do not have the skills to be able to build upon this independently.’

They remained reluctant to source higher level vocabulary for themselves, or to transfer the new vocabulary they had learned to other subject areas.

Metacognition and Retrieval Practice

Several of the TARP teachers used their enquiries to test their supposition that students make better progress the more they are aware of the processes of learning. As noted already, an A level English teacher found that his students trusted him and his methods the more they recognised that they had some basis in cognitive science. He concluded that placing subject knowledge at the heart of the curriculum yielded significant benefits that seemed to go beyond simply recalling knowledge.

‘The ease with which the students retrieved information decreased cognitive load. It seemed that being able to retrieve knowledge with relative ease freed up cognitive space to concentrate on structuring essays and writing well.’

The teacher of the lunchtime intervention group found that they began to bring in examples of dual-coding they had produced in Science and discussed flash card examples for their humanities revision.

‘It was evident that they had not only taken a more independent approach to selecting and using appropriate recall and retrieval strategies but were also open and willing to share these with their peers.’

Caveats

These were small studies, a few conducted across a department or between two or three groups, most confined to a single class. Within that, the teachers tracked the impact of their projects on the much smaller number of specifically disadvantaged students. It is an advantage of action research that it allows participating teachers to spot the often very small, yet significant, changes that can occur when a modification is made to teaching. The methodology is essentially qualitative, which allows the teachers to report on the attitudes and behaviours which are both factors in and outcomes of learning. But the datasets are necessarily tiny, and the measures of attainment – short of public exam data – are assessed by the teachers themselves. (TARP concluded before the end of the Summer term, i.e. before the release of the 2019 public exams.)

The teachers on TARP were clearly invested in the successes of their interventions, and they were mindful of the pitfalls of bias. Several, in their own reporting, speculated upon the possible negative consequences of their study. One teacher’s English department colleagues undertook a lesson study into the expanded use of higher order language to enable their students to express perspective. She noted that they enjoyed the ‘safe’ bank of vocabulary they were given and asked

‘Are we inhibiting students by providing them with too much? Do we over-stimulate or confuse students with SEN? Some students feel they have to use every new word, which then makes their written responses convoluted.’

The geographer in the group also expressed a residual concern for her lower prior attaining students. When she and her geography colleagues rewrote their Key Stage 3 curriculum, they found that their higher and middle prior attainers responded well. But the lower prior attainers – especially those deemed to be at Levels 1 or 2 – did not. She remained confident in the approaches taken by her colleagues but was cognisant also of making too bold a claim.

Final comments

The Teacher Action Research Projects have made a positive difference to disadvantaged students in the eight schools. They have also affected the teachers themselves, their confidence as practitioners and their sense of their place in the profession. All intend to continue with the practices they innovated this year, and several have expanded their plans.

Reflecting on TARP, one commented

‘I think that to be effective educators, we need to be able to process, explore and consider the research before it is implemented, so that it can have a more positive impact on our students.’

The final word should go to another, for whom the project has made her think about

‘how small changes can have an impact without adding to workload and that sometimes it is doing more of what already works rather than incorporating something completely new.’

The full version of this report will soon be available on the UCL website at:

www.ucl.ac.uk/widening-participation/TARP