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.

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

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We all have ‘Mental Health’ – it’s what you do with it that counts

This is a Chapter from James Hollinley’s book which is available on this site.

 

Within the media, there is a growing awareness and publication around ‘mental health’. Over the years, the terminology has changed and, more recently, so has perspective. As such, it is important to understand the link between history and present when looking at mental health.

A very, very brief history and why it is important

For the larger part of history, those with poor mental health were treated very poorly. In medieval times, it was linked to witchcraft and demons – mostly leading to attempted exorcism or burning at the stake. The scientific approach was through the drilling into the skull (trephining) to release the spirit. Before these times of ‘medical’ practice, it was linked to making gods angry.

The 1600s saw the growing introduction of lunatic asylums e.g. Bedlam, that saw the vulnerable removed from communities and kept in dismal, prison-like conditions including shackles and beating – seemingly a refuge for them with a focus on keeping them in. The 1800s started to see treatments such as rotation therapy in which a chair was suspended, and the patient was spun in a circular

We all have ‘mental health’ – it’s what you do with it that counts

motion until they promised the staff that they would get better. Over time these changed from being places in which those less affluent could be watched by visiting public to being redefined by the early 20th century as ‘mental hospitals’ with a more medical approach – the most common being electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies being brought in within the 1930s until popular banning in the ’50s.

In the 1970s many of the asylums or mental hospitals closed in growing favour of therapy, converting to what is now commonly known as short-stay hospital placements – this was aided by the development and popularity of anti-psychotic medication and further understanding of therapeutic support. In both the UK and US, the percentage institutionalised decreased in 40 years by 90%, between 1950 and 1990. However, we are still in an age in which some generations of society experienced the large stigma of asylums and institutions – many of those most affluent would pay for these services in secret. Those who could not afford private placements would make up stories of holidays and visiting family. No wonder there is such mystery and stigma, only now beginning to be challenged – this will take anything from a decade onwards to educate society and convince communities and employers that it is okay to have a mental health condition.

We have a very long way to go. Last week, I spoke to a lady from Africa who hides her epilepsy from her family because they believe she is possessed. It has cost her a marriage and her children. Her medication is hidden from her family in fear of further isolation. In turn, this has brought on depression and anxiety. If a very common medical issue such as epilepsy is still misunderstood within some British communities, then a person with a mental health condition that is even less understood – such as bipolar, psychosis or Schizophrenia – will certainly face a tougher challenge to feel complete within society, hold employment or a successful relationship.

Schools

In schools, teachers, support staff and school leaders all have their own experiences of children with a wide range of issues that they can recall – usually stemming around ‘behavioural difficulties’. The prevalence of mental health in social media states astronomical situations. You will see statistical headlines such as:

  • The Mental Health Foundation (2003) stated that over ‘450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem’.
  • Time to Change stated that ‘1 in 4 people will have a mental health problem this year, but too many people are made to feel isolated and ashamed as a result’.

 

With ‘mental health problems’ being so apparently prevalent, it can be clearly stated that having poor mental health is all part of the human condition at some point in many people’s lives and, due to its commonality in humans, should have no stigma attached. It is an unfortunate but perfectly natural thing to happen to any person at any point in one’s life. As Harris (2017) states: ‘If we stop assuming that good mental health throughout a lifetime is the norm, we can get a much sharper idea of why those who are fortunate with their mental health are able to stay well.’

Teachers would benefit, therefore, from taking a child and looking at whether they show signs of good mental health. This is detailed by Gunnar (2017), at the Institute of Child Development:

  • They are curious and interested in the world.
  • They are willing and wanting to learn.
  • They can sit and reflect at times about what is going on.
  • They have the ability to experience love, affection and emotions.
  • They get upset when things are upsetting them and bring themselves back to a level state without needing intense intervention. Nature and nurture
  • Mental health impairments can develop in early childhood. Shonkoff (2010) stated that it is scientifically proven that ‘at a molecular level, ALL aspects of brain function are the result of interaction between genetics and experience’. As such, it is our genes, together with experiences, that set up the operating systems in our brains.
  • The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University refers to three kinds of responses to stress. This is very clear for practitioners and can aid school professionals to understand the workings of the brain.

Stress response system

Examples of situations

Effects

Positive stress

Positive stress response is characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels.

  • … First day with a new caregiver
  • … Receiving an injected immunisation

Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development.

Tolerable stress

Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties.

Toxic stress

Toxic stress response can occur when a child

experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity.

  • … The loss of a loved one
  • … A natural disaster
  • … A frightening injury
  • … Physical or emotional abuse
  • … Chronic neglect
  • … Caregiver substance abuse
  • … Caregiver mental illness
  • … Exposure to violence
  • … The accumulated burdens offamily economic hardship …without adequate adult support.

If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.

Without reducing instability quickly and effectively through the correct support, the above situations can weaken developing brain architecture and cause ‘early adversity’ in which the body’s stress response systemis permanently set on high alert. This can have lifelong effects on the person’s physical and mental health.

How should Schools Perceive ‘mental health’?

It is easy for schools to get lost in the whole ‘do they or don’t they have poor mental health’ debate. Instead, it would be easier for schools to develop a ‘mindset’ that there are three types of poor mental health. The reason we should do this is that schools can potentially tackle poor wellbeing, whereas ‘mental health problems’ and ‘major psychological disorders’ they certainly cannot and need specialist support. You can split ‘mental health’ into three main subsets – please note that the extensive list of mental health conditions is far larger – however, these tend to be the most prevalent in schools and provide a firm example for discussion:

Type

Condition

Initial response

Major psychological

disorders

There is suggested evidence that these are traceable to the same genetic variations.

Autism – early*

ADHD – early*

Clinical depression – late Bipolar disorder – late Schizophrenia – late

*Autism and ADHD are more commonly diagnosed in the primary years and have a heavier involvement with the SENCO, whereas those ‘late’ are more prevalent in secondary schools and in need of clinical help.

Mental health problems

Needing referral

More likely to be a result of environmental factors**

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Eating disorders

Anxiety

Depression

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Paranoia

Self-harm

Suicidal thoughts/tendencies

Referral to Lead for Wellbeing who should refer this to EWMHS – previously known as CAMHS.

Wellbeing

Actions and states of wellbeing as a result of events

Loneliness

Panic attacks Low self-esteem Stress

Anger

Also referral to Lead for Wellbeing – wraparound meetings with parents and other professionals. These can be tackled within the school environment with professional advice where needed.

Nationally, those needing ‘clinical’ support (referral to EWMHS, doctors, clinical psychologists) are those not being able to access quick support, and are occasionally rejected for support due to not ‘meeting thresholds’. This debate aside, schools are placed in ever-increasing circumstances in which they have to provide support within their establishment. Onsite bought in counselling services (later discussed in this book) are growing to become a more popular solution.

Nationally, those needing ‘clinical’ support (referral to EWMHS, doctors, clinical psychologists) are those not being able to access quick support, and are occasionally rejected for support due to not’ meeting thresholds’. This debate aside, schools are placed in ever-increasing circumstances in which they have to provide support within their establishment. Onsite bought in counselling services (later discussed in this book) are growing to become a more popular solution.

Teachers are there to teach…

The primary role of a teacher is to educate and deliver lessons. In many ways, an effective teacher will ensure that the pastoral care and emotional wellbeing of a pupil in their care is also high on their agenda – that is why so many schools are good and so many children and young people feel safe at school. The question is not regarding the role of the teacher (as this is to teach, role model and care for those in their school), rather about the role of a school itself. Teachers and schools are not mental health specialists and must stay clear of diagnosing or trying to solve mental health problems. Schools also vary widely in regards to ethos, focus and expectation of pupils and staff.

A successful school develops an ethos and structures that encompass the proactive development of the whole child. Some primaries look after pupils very well but do not necessarily look at what is needed to make them well rounded or are often stretched to cope with academic pressures. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the ethos of a school focuses on the development of the whole child with a purposeful focus on academics and, equal to this, wellbeing for later life.

It is not just the children

Staff can also find themselves in a situation in which they have poor mental health – this is increasingly prevalent as more practitioners find the courage to actively speak out. It is also important for teachers and school leaders to be aware of what makes a school a successful and encompassing environment in which those struggling are supported and given the necessary help and understanding.

The creation of a positive working environment not only helps staff but filters down to the pupils. This must come from headteachers and governors to carefully consider the work-life balance and the culture of the school – those that do not, risk not only the wellbeing of staff but that also of children and young people. Adults who model positive working relationships and communication are essential in building a community that enhances and embraces positive wellbeing for all. 

The first, large step

In short, embrace wellbeing, together with increasing resilience, as this will aid in developing positive mental health now and later in life. When it comes to immediate mental health problems – always seek guidance from professionals. How schools do this will very much depend on their specific intake and need against financial ability and priorities.

A positive step for schools would be to look at individuals, question what they need in order to be well-rounded persons able to cope with what life will throw at them e.g. are they shy, withdrawn in group situations, in need of seeking too much attention, lacking in social circles, fearing failure, grossly overweight and so on. Plan how to provide individuals with the necessary experiences or tools and then execute these in the same gusto as many execute booster classes for academic development. Aim for successful individuals in all aspects and the common purpose will not only make a significant difference in future years but also will have the buy-in and support from staff.

References

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2017): Toxic Stress. Available at: developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/ (Accessed 29 July 2017).

Gunnar, M. (2017): Center on the Developing Child. In Brief: Early Childhood Mental Health. Available at: developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief- early-childhood-mental-health (Accessed 20 June 2017).

Shakoff, J. (2010): Building a New Biodevelopmental Framework to Guide the Future of Early Childhood Policy in Child Development. Washington, D.C.: The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. Vol. 81, no. 1, p. 357-367.

Time To Change (2018): Be in your mate’s corner and change a life – men urged in new mental health campaign. London: Time to Change. Available at: www.time-to-change.org.uk/news/be-in-your-mates-corner (Accessed 1 January 2018).

WHO (2003): Investing in Mental Health. Geneva: The World Health Organisation.

It’s OK to be Anxious.

Written by @Joanner79Jo

Originally posted here https://mymusingsoneducationcounselingandcreatingafairersociety.wordpress.com

I have never blogged before but having seen a number of tweets expressing anxiety about the new academic year I thought I’d give it a go.

I am prompted to write my first blog after reading a number of tweets expressing anxiety and nerves about the new academic year. I too experience anxiety at this time of year, despite 20 years of teaching and entering my seventh year as head, so I have been thinking about the reasons why.

I guess really I want to reassure. I honestly believe that being anxious is fine! Our job matters. In some ways it should give you sleepless nights, not because you are worried about your school’s position in the league tables or because this year is an OFSTED year but because you are being trusted to educate young people. It doesn’t matter whether you are teaching in Nursery or Year 13, the job comes with a huge amount of responsibility so if you are going to survive it you need to care. I hope though that your anxiety is also tempered by excitement whatever your current role in school. I can’t wait to get to know my new Early Years Children and their families but am also excited to work with my NQTS and further develop ethical leadership at all levels. Of course alongside the excitement is anxiety but isn’t that the point?

Although it might appear flippant to suggest sleepless nights are okay, I want to make it clear. I do not want anyone to feel so anxious they cannot sleep and their long term health to suffer, but I do want everyone involved in education to be motivated not by their personal ambition but by the desire to make the world a fairer place for all children. This means there will be times when you spend hours thinking and pondering on the child you are finding it most difficult to reach or even how to bring in a balanced budget without yet another restructure. You will occasionally wake up at 3 am in the morning worried about the child with a Child Protection Plan, or with what you think is an amazing idea for a whole school street party, (not realising that that alone is enough to give your long suffering Deputy her own sleepless nights) and the night before results day, whatever level, is likely to be pretty tough. However, what I have learnt and what helps me generally sleep at night is knowing that I generally have done my best. I cannot fix everything and nor can you. I cannot fix affordable housing for my families living in overcrowded and temporary accommodation but I can listen, make phone calls and adapt my policies to recognise what an achievement it is for some children to get to school at all let alone on time. I can’t overcome every challenge and barrier faced by my children with SEND but I can listen to them and their parents, I can try and walk in their shoes and if this means changing my uniform policy to accommodate a child’s hypersensitivity to certain fabrics or bringing in whole school training on attachment and trauma to better understand our Looked After Children, then I will.

I will do all I can to reduce teacher work load but not at the expense of the children. It is a hard job – there are different points in the year when we are all on our knees, but it is also the best job. If my staff come to me with ideas for reducing planning I will of course listen, but nor will I just go down the route of doing something because it is easier for staff. Our curriculum needs to be responsive to my community and relevant to their experiences and interests. This year we are working on children seeing themselves in the books they read and the history they study and this has of course created work for class teachers and subject leads. I make no apologies for this. I do all I can to provide time for leaders to lead and teachers to teach but ultimately, well our kids get one shot at this so it needs to be the best it can possibly be.

I guess in conclusion, what I am trying to say in my clumsy way, is that it is okay to be anxious and nervous. I’d be pretty surprised if you weren’t. However, find ways to live with yourself and look after yourself. You’re anxious because you are in a profession that cares passionately about getting it right for our children. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed talk to someone, anyone. But also, embrace the nerves and the worry, it’s what drives us all to keep getting better.

Losing A Pupil

This is by no way professional advice, a substitute for therapy or a ‘what to do when’ article.

This, unfortunately, is almost inevitable in the life of teachers, through your career you will lose a pupil, I have lost many pupils, to multiple different causes including suicides, road traffic accident, violent crime and illness. It hurts until a numbness envelops you.

This, unfortunately, is almost inevitable in the life of teachers, through your career you will lose a pupil. Click To Tweet

The teacher-pupil​ relationship is really complex, to some of these pupils you are the constant in their lives and although this is ‘work’ for us I would argue that our whole profession is predicated on the basis that we care for those we serve.

After losing a pupil, the intrusive thoughts of ‘should I have said something’ and ‘done something’, No matter how irrational these thoughts are, I call this the ‘what if’ phase, then for me comes the I don’t care phase. The world is so cruel why am I even playing this game and slowly the acceptance game. Everyone goes through feeling pupils similar to these, teachers, staff, the community I mean everyone.

We are trained to be the pillar of strength. We are strong for the kids, our colleagues, we are trained to be the adult. I am going to admit, I have cried many tears over my pupils, being the pillar of strength may be​ the right thing professionally but we need to recognise this takes its toll.

A pupil’s death is rarely an event that can be compartmentalised. This trauma can take months, sometimes years to deal with. Personally,​ I used to have a feeling of dread every year pre-holidays, with no idea of what and why I was feeling that way. Until I did. The community, teachers, our pupil, and the school family should be supported throughout these times.

I have no real answer to what this support looks like. Yes, I could suggest ​various things but like I said earlier I am not a professional. I would state again this is support is important and should not be pushed on to anyone other than the appropriately trained professionals.

Losing pupils to suicides is the hardest thing I have ever faced in a school. Every feeling described in the earlier paragraph is heightened. The hardest part is acceptance. Only once I accept that at that point it’s what that pupil wanted where I could move past rationalise any of it.

I’m going to leave this here. I will add to this. Just not today.

Edutwitter. A Dangerous Place?

Every so often, I get an email, a DM or a phone call, from someone that wants, no, needs their voice heard. Guest Blog.

TW: Online grooming.

As I am about to write this, I already feel like a fool. I start typing, read, delete and repeat. I’m not a blogger or a writer, I don’t use long, flowery words, so please forgive me. This experience is extremely difficult to articulate and write about.. but I will try my best and here it goes.

About a year and a half ago, I had a twitter account that I set up a few years ago when I was an NQT. I wasn’t a huge Twitter user at the time and dabbled in and out of Edutwitter although never became heavily involved with it. Over a couple of years, my account shifted from being focused on education to my personal account, posting photographs of what I was cooking for dinner, photos of my friends and I, rubbish jokes and puns as well as making fun of my horrendous dates from Tinder.

One day a message popped into my inbox from someone, let’s call him… Paul. Paul wrote to me ‘Hey, your tweets are so funny, they really make me laugh, how are you?’, before I reply to any message the first thing I do is suss out the person’s profile, I scroll through their tweets, look at the number of their followers, who they are following, I check to see if we have any mutual online teacher/education friends and look at their photos. Paul, quite clearly knew his stuff, a Head from London, all tweets where SLT/school-related, this was someone who had a thirst and a passion for education, however, there was one thing I did notice in particular, he had no picture. So what? Many teachers keep themselves private on Twitter. Headship is a lonely place, Twitter was a safe place for him, after a few months of this first message, I found out Twitter wasn’t a safe place for me.

Twitter was a safe place for him, after a few months of this first message, I found out Twitter wasn’t a safe place for me. Click To Tweet

I politely replied, small talk, chit chat but did not ask any questions. He messaged me again the next day, asking about my job and hobbies. This time, I tried to imagine how old Paul was, I assumed much older than myself given his position in school and/or married. After a couple of friendly messages exchanged I decided to ask him outright about his age. He told me he was thirty-four, whilst that is a young age for a Head it is possible, my previous Head was younger than that. After a few weeks of messaging, he asked for my number. I was hesitant, I didn’t know what Paul looked like but he seemed so interested in me, my job and I suppose after a while I became interested in him.

I gave him my number and immediately he sent me a Whataspp message, he sent me some photographs of what he looked like, one photo was of him standing in a school playground, suited and booted surrounded by secondary school pupils with a proud smile on his face. We Facetimed and chatted about each other’s day, he said I looked beautiful even though I was exhausted. We would speak on the phone for hours each day over a couple of months, Paul told me all about his interview for his Headship, he told me about his deputies and how two of them didn’t get along with each other. One day he told me about an NQT in the English department who was struggling so had a meeting with her and had gone to support her in her lessons. I enjoyed finding out about the ups and downs of his day and that he could vent and offload to me. I remember him telling me that a student had dislocated his shoulder and that the parents wanted to take the school to court.

Meanwhile, I was having a difficult time at work, I felt frustrated with my Head of Department for different reasons. I’d ask Paul for advice and he suggested a few things, my Head had asked to see me about my issues with my Head of Department and of course, it was something I wasn’t looking forward to. Even though I hadn’t met him yet, Paul had given me lots of support, he had run through what I should say to my Head. I’m definitely not the most diplomatic person so always tend to get flustered in situations like this but I felt confident what to say as Paul had advised me. I was getting text messages from my Head of Department and abusive messages from my ex-boyfriend, Paul told me to change my number, so I did.  Nobody had my new number apart from family, very close friends and Paul.

With a whirlwind at work and having just come out of a difficult relationship I felt that the best part of my day was talking to Paul. Every time I put the phone down I felt full of confidence and self-belief, he oozed enthusiasm and positivity. After a few more weeks, Paul said he was going to be visiting the city that I live in for a Head’s conference and asked if I’d like to meet him for a drink. I felt nervous, we had been talking every day for months and I agreed. We arranged to meet in the city and he was already there waiting for me, I slowly walked towards him and he turned around and beamed and wrapped his arms around me.

We went to a bar, it was busy but we managed to get a table, we were chatting away and he put his hand on mine and said he had something for me. The bar staff bought over a bunch of flowers, they were beautiful.  We spoke a lot about my job and that I needed to move schools, he suggested looking for a job in London and that if I could work in a London school I could work anywhere, I’d progress quickly if I wanted to work up (I hate London so that would’ve never happened). My phone ran out of battery and I had no cash on me so I used his phone to order an Uber for myself, he jumped on the train back to London. At the time, I was living with my parents, as soon as I walked through the front door with a bunch of flowers a barrage of questions followed which I avoided answering! I started to think and realised that even though I had been speaking to Paul for a few months, there was still a lot that I didn’t know about him.

Paul called me the next day and we had our usual chat however I decided I would dig a little deeper into his history. He had grown up in the city where I live and I was eager to know where and how his teaching career started. I asked him where he did his training and he would reply but not actually answer my questions. We met for a second time and he came to visit me from London, he took me to a lovely Italian restaurant which he told me it held happy memories before his mother passed away. So after our dinner, we were drinking red wine, I asked him about his school, I still didn’t know the name of his school or his second name, we had only met twice (I also wanted to read the OFSTED report for his school!). He couldn’t look at me directly in the eye and I knew something was off. He took his bank card out of his wallet to pay for the bill, so I played detective and managed to read the name on his bank card, let’s call his second name.. Smith (very original).

When I arrived home, I opened my laptop and my Google search began. No Head called Paul Smith, nothing. Not one single thing. I remembered I had the photograph of him and the students from our Whatsapp messages. I reversed searched the photograph (I had watched the programme Catfish many times!), nothing. So I turned into a ghost and vanished from Paul, I wouldn’t reply to his messages. Gut instinct is so powerful and usually, it is always right.

One evening Paul called me in desperation to talk to me again, I answered and told him I knew there was something that he wasn’t telling me. Then there were a few seconds of silence.  He said there was something but he couldn’t possibly tell me what it was. I told him if he didn’t tell me what he was keeping from me, he would never speak to me again. The first three questions I asked him were “Are you married?”. No. “Are you engaged?” No. “Do you have a family that you’ve not mentioned?” No. I remained calm although in my head my conscience was shouting “WTF” over and over again.

Now if I reveal too much detail here,  his identity will be exposed. After he told me his secret, he had been lying about his name, Paul Smith was the name on his bank card (remember Paul Smith is the name I’m using for this blog), he told me that he had legally changed his name. I asked what his previous name was and he told me. I Googled his original name and my mouth dropped open, there were articles published in the national press with his photograph and his original name. Although what he had been accused of wasn’t illegal but definitely a case of breach of trust and I’m pretty certain that no school would want him working them if they knew this information, true or not, his name and photograph had been dragged through the media with a pretty serious accusation.

I stared at his previous name, printed in bold. I felt angry at him and myself. There was no way this guy was a Head, it was all a lie. He had told me so much about his job, a complete web of lies over a few months. For someone to be able to manipulate and lie to this extent could potentially be dangerous. I changed my number, even a couple of colleagues made a comment about how much I changed my number. He knew what school I worked at, I was worried he was going to turn up outside the school gates or even turn up at my parents’ house (I remembered using his phone for an Uber). I felt like I had been groomed, even as a grown woman. I deleted my twitter account and completely disappeared. I was at work and had an email sent to my work address from a teacher who had been following me, he had guessed my work email address, I could see the numerous attempts in the ‘CC’ bar of the email. He guessed correctly and asked why I vanished. This was getting weirdier.

I moved out of my parent’s house and did move school. After a year, I made a new Twitter account, I wasn’t frightened anymore. After I gained a few followers, after a few months it became a few hundred and then thousands. My tweets occasionally get retweeted hundreds of times and I went to check Paul’s account only to find he had already found me and blocked me.

Twitter can be a great place for many, I’ve met some great educators from there and even friends and they are the people who will know my identity because they have heard my story already. However, it can also be a dangerous place. I’ve not spoken to Paul since he doesn’t deserve to be anonymous but I do. Male or Female, Look after yourself.

However, it can also be a dangerous place. I’ve not spoken to Paul since he doesn’t deserve to be anonymous but I do. Look after yourself. Click To Tweet

Me x

 

Edu-Meet Mental Health – Autumn 2019

The Vision

To create a place where educators can get together, network and discuss the very pertinent subject of mental health within our profession. We are the foundations of modern society, we make all adults into what and who they are. Mental health is a facet rarely discussed with our pupils or ourselves and this must change for the betterment of the pupils we serve and the profession we love.

Mental health is a facet rarely discussed with our pupils or ourselves and this must change for the betterment of the pupils we serve and the profession we love. Click To Tweet

The form below is to gauge interest in different areas

 

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An Educator’s Guide To Mental Health and Well Being

I believe that mental health illnesses are exactly that, illnesses, and should be viewed as such without the fear of stigma and discrimination. As educators, it is our social, moral and legal responsibility to create an environment in our classrooms in which pupils and teachers alike feel safe in reaching out for help and support.

Recently I appeared on BBC London’s Inside Out program “Why Teaching is Making Me Ill” in which I disclosed that I, myself have suffered from bouts of depression, sleeplessness and anxiety. Since the program aired not only have I been inundated with emails from fellow teachers in solidarity but my pupils have been completely supportive and frank in their questioning. Although I do feel as though I have reduced my employment opportunities in some schools but do I really want to work for those organisations anyway, so all in all a positive experience.

Let me make a point here I refuse to be ashamed of an illness. This is my consistent response to every enquiry which errs on the side of stigma or discrimination, sometimes peoples brains don’t produce enough chemicals for them to function at a 100% all of the time and I cannot emphasise this enough, that’s okay.

Being honest as educators, schools can be pressure cookers for teachers with the inherent stresses of day to day issues of working with the volatility of pupils, unachievable numerical exam targets, incessant formal lesson observations, pay related performance management and the harsh face of accountability.

Similarly, pupils in their adolescence also have a multitude of stresses and if not checked in many cases this becomes a breeding ground for mental health issues. As leaders within schools, how do we create a safe environment within the teaching body and as classroom practitioners how do we do the same for the student body?

How School Leaders can impact on Mental well being

School leaders, senior and middle leaders should be acutely aware of the impact of their actions. When relaying targets teacher self-efficacy has to be in the forefront of their minds, when leaders and followers alike don’t believe they can do their task successfully the pressures are often passed down the chain and ultimately to this impacts on the pupils.

A protective layer of real leadership has to be formed somewhere along the chain as the number of times I’ve heard senior leaders make statements such as “just get the results” and “you’re the middle leader make it happen”. Similarly, I’ve heard teachers say to pupils “Grow up you’re in year 11” or “You haven’t started revising. What is the point of me teaching you?”. None of the phrases offers any insight, knowledge or advice to move forward however it does have the effect of making the pupil or teacher feel pressured and stressed without the tools to solve the dilemma.

School leaders need to recognise honesty and transparency are the structures which form an organisation’s foundations of culture. Within my current senior leadership team, I feel absolutely no fear of judgement or consequent discrimination as a real trust has been built through long term continuous and honest discourse.

Many teachers and pupils either fear the consequences of reaching out for help or are unaware of the symptoms and illnesses they are going through. Digging into the reasons behind this, often the stigma comes second to the discrimination around mental health. Simply creating a culture where people are not labelled is not enough, the fear of discrimination have to put to rest first.

Without the regular conversations trust around our mental well-being cannot be built, similarly, I would advocate a similar approach with our pupils. Some schools use form tutors/mentors to foster such conversations but I believe this has the most impact if we celebrate the role of the teacher in pupil well-being. Every teacher is and should be a teacher of mental well-being.

Important: Let me point out that teachers (including myself) are not trained and probably do not have the skills to treat mental illness or identify them. This is okay, accept this and own it we are not health care professionals. Direct pupils and parents to the right medical services.

“Place Mask on Securely on Yourself Before you Help Others”

I’d like to make an analogy here; on aeroplanes, the oxygen safety mask announcements always end with “Place your mask on securely, before you help others”. If I am saying it’s your responsibility to look after your pupils’ mental well-being, to do this effectively I’m also saying you have to fulfil the same responsibility to your own self.

How do you check your own mental wellbeing? I live by one steadfast rule, if there is something that has a detrimental impact on your day to day life, that’s not okay. Regardless if it is physical or mental in nature, go and seek medical help from your doctors.

Here are my 7 tips for the preparation for getting help:

1. You are not going crazy or mad (this is unhelpful). The chances are, that you are ill, accept this, you are going for treatment for your illness. You are at the doctors for treatment.

2. Doctors are often nebulous beings in our lives, they are always there but do we really know them. Think about and prepare the words to describe how you have been feeling. It took me at least 2 appointments to describe my experience clearly.

3. Get there in good time and think about asking for a longer appointment. I didn’t go to my first appointment, I was a few minutes late and it was easier to cancel than face it. The second appointment wasn’t much better, I made a sharp exit mid-appointment when I realised that time was going to be an issue.

4. Be honest with yourself and consequently the doctor. You deserve to be happy and don’t let anything get in the way of that.

5. Take someone who knows you well with you, that’s if you need to, we all get lost for words sometimes or become overwhelmed it made easier to tackle if you have back up.

6. Be open to the doctor’s advice, remember they are the professionals. Anti-depressants are often regarded as a taboo. For some people, tablets are the way forward and letting a stigma around a pill stop you from feeling better is silly.

7. Commit to making yourself healthy. This means there may not be a quick fix but a long term strategy. As practitioners we often commit to our schools and pupils, spending endless hours doing your very best for them. Do the same for yourself you deserve it.

If you are not in a position to support a pupil, do not lament, just use the structures within the school and pass it on to someone who is, Recognise you can only give when you are ready and able to give. If you feel you are in a position to support please recycle the above list, use it as script and pass it on.

Then, and this is important whether you supporting or passed it on, it is your responsibility to keep checking in with the pupil, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders, mental illnesses do not disappear after a trip to the doctors.

Telling Pupils – About Yourself or Others

The first time I told I pupil that I suffered was around 10 years ago. At the time she felt alone in the world and thought the feelings of anguish and anxiety was brought on because she wasn’t positive enough and/or appreciate her life enough.

“It’s okay {add name}, I have these sometimes too, try and breathe through it, it’ll pass, I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but it’ll pass”

As soon as I said it I stuttered, stammered and stopped, was this what I should be telling a pupil during an anxiety attack? Does this make me look weak? Will the senior leadership team find out? Is this the right thing to do?

The answers to these questions are yes. Yes, the act of sharing was an act of solidarity, she was no longer alone in the way she felt, it wasn’t just her and more importantly, maybe it wasn’t her fault. Yes, it may have made me look weaker as a person of authority by admitting weakness but stronger as a human being and I’d argue as a real role model. Yes, the senior leadership team undoubtedly found out but surprisingly no issues there either. Yes, I believe it was exactly the right thing to do.

Thankfully from her reaction, it was obvious that she needed someone who wasn’t afraid of the illness or the stigma. Someone who she could come and talk to when her friends/family thought she was attention seeking. Someone who’d been there when the doctor suggested Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the possibility of medication. Someone to say you’re not mad, crazy or nuts you’re unwell at the moment and the medical professionals know best.

Being a Role Model

Whether you like it or not you are a real tangible role model to your pupils. They look up to you. Even on those dreary days when they are all being so annoying they still look up to you, in many cases you are the constant in their lives, not just someone but that someone for whatever reason cares about them.

What does this burden of role-modelhood entail? I’m not going to tell you that teachers must live perfect lives but I do believe as teachers we form the pillars on which societies are formed. As role models, we should share our adversities and moreover our triumphs over them.

Role models who triumph over adversity are commonplace in our schools and in wider society, whether it’s a triumph through the tribulations of living in a slum or overcoming a physical ailment for sporting glory. However triumphant roles models with respect to mental health are few and far between, this is mirrored and is culturally similar to wider society so having them within schools is an absolute must.

Where teachers are fortunate enough to have robust mental health it’s important for them to portray their understanding and acceptance of the conditions that plague some many others.

We can only hope that the next generation will live up to the values of the role models they see in our schools. Perpetuating through society, changing the world for the better.

This is from a chapter I wrote for the following book as you have made it to the end, it’s available here for a discounted price thanks to School Books Direct.

Mental Health and Well being in Schools.

 

 

 

MH: What does “Look after Yourself”, “Rest”, “Being Kind to Yourself” Actually Mean?

When a friend of mine broke their collarbone in an incident involving her cat. She was put into a sling with regular fracture clinic visits and told to rest the arm. She absolutely ignored this advice and as a result, has made her recovery more convoluted.

With physical illness it is always easy, broken arm – rest the arm, broken leg – stay off the leg. What happens when it’s your brain? You can’t stay off your brain. How do you rest your brain? When people ask you to look after yourself, to rest and be kind to yourself. What does this actually mean? I used to think this meant I had to get of the house, go for walks, clear my head, meet friends, do yoga, etc.

To be completely honest, sometimes some of those things really helped but equally, sometimes they made things worse. When you’re suffering from a mental illness, looking after yourself is a priority and you have a responsibility to yourself. That means letting yourself heal.

What does healing involve? Listen to yourself. If that means meeting your friends for dinner, do that, at other times, if that means cancelling because you can’t face it do that. Do whatever you need to, to get you through the day. Live day to day and when things are bad, hour to hour.

When you’re in the thick of it. It feels like that dark cloud will never pass, sometimes that the tears won’t stop streaming and the numbness, god the numbness, will be permanent.

Take solace in the fact it will pass, I promise you.

#MH Tips Doctor’s Appointments

 

For years I thought it was my fault, my brain told my psyche that I was inexplicably upset daily. I spent years trying to train myself to deny this reality. This was the epitome of stupidity, turning away from a demon may provide temporary respite but in the long run, this will always leave you blind sighted.

 

If you feel sad, not right, flat, have intrusive thoughts, go through mood swings regularly. You’re probably ill. You may need help, I mean medical help. Please, you deserve to be well. Go to the doctors.

 

Tips for your doctor’s appointment.

 

  1. Book a double appointment – it was hard for me to get to the doctors and when the doctor said I was out of time before I declare my issue. I bottled it and ran home.
  2. Get there early, I’ve turned up to an appointment 3 mins late and again bottled it and ran home.
  3. Make a list of what you want to say. Without this, it’s hard, to be honest with a relative stranger. It easier to lie and run home.
  4. Take a friend – it’s hard to bottle it a run away when you’re with someone
  5. Listen to the medical professional, if they offer you medication consider it carefully. I’ll come back to this later.

 

Running home serves no one well, least of all yourself. Other than my legs that is, as you may have inferred I bottled it a lot.

 

Pills, happy pills, anti-depressants and SSRI’s, you know the addictive and prescribed to crazy people. Right stop, if we are going to make a difference in the lives of young people we are going to have to be brave for them.

 

Medication is medication. The only thing it means is that your doctor thinks it will help

in the treatment of your illness. If there is a stigma around that, let us turn it into a positive one. You are getting the support you need.

 

If you do not get the answers you need. Book into another doctor. I have had all manner of silly things been said to me.

 

“You don’t look depressed”

 

“Take walks every day”

 

“You’re a little young to be feeling this way”

 

You are important, you have a responsibility to your self.