The problem with invisible teaching*

*To steal a phrase from David Didau

This past week has been the busiest week of the year: A Level marks & moderation to send off; A Level data to go to head of sixth form; GCSE sample to send off; observation with the head & head of PE; meetings; illnesses (my migraine & 2 of my team); the AS Lit exam. I’m tired again just writing it all out and I didn’t include my day job of teaching and running the department!

But, somehow through all this, I still had to teach all my classes, including 4 exam classes, to my usual standard. This week really made me understand how much of our teaching is invisible. My students, my trainee and my observers only see the end product of a lot of thought, work and, at times, stress.

If I’m being completely honest, there was the odd lesson that was planned in my head as I was driving in to work that morning and I’m lucky that I have enough experience to draw on to do that occasionally. However, it’s not always possible to do this.

To teach a lesson where learning takes place for each student, you need to have planned your lesson knowing where all the starting points are for all your students and where their end goal is (and if they’re likely to achieve it without a bit of extra help / differentiation) as well as resource it.

And this is the invisible part of our teaching. Our students are often totally unaware of everything we have done to prepare for that hour of their lives. Their lack of understanding can sometimes come across as ingratitude which never goes down well with a tired and stressed teacher.

Perhaps the worse problem is that even though our SLT have been through it before, but the longer they’re at the top the longer it is since they’ve been on a full time table and the world of education is changing so fast now. This often makes teachers feel aggrieved by the demands of SLT, feeling that they are just unreasonable requests from leaders who don’t truly understand.

I’ve seen teachers kill themselves frantically marking books because the book scrutiny doesn’t fit in with their making schedule and they don’t want their knuckles rapped. But then they moan about the mark load and marking policy imposed by SLT; the same SLT who think you’re coping because of the book scrutiny you “passed”. This is why I stopped doing this and didn’t get my knuckles rapped when I explained I marked books fortnightly and Y10 had just handed theirs in ready for marking.

I think the problem of invisible teaching goes beyond SLT though. This problem stretches out to parents and politicians too. So few of the parents know what we really do and can assume we only work 8-3 term times only so offer little sympathy when we don’t reply to them straight away. But worse than that the people in charge don’t really know what we do. Nicky Morgan can visit as many schools as she wants, but unless she shadows a teacher, from the primary and secondary sector, for at least a week, she’ll never really understand. This means she can never truly understand the results of the work load survey and if that’s the case, how can she fix it?

Ideally, we should only complete our planning, preparation and assessment in our PPA time and show that it’s not possible. But how could we do that and not let our students’ education suffer? This dilemma will always be an issue and prevent us from taking successful action to do something to ease the workload and create teachers who have the time and energy to plan, prepare and deliver high quality lessons to every class every day.

Sadly, I think, at least for now, teaching will always be invisible. It really shouldn’t be; a good teacher works bloody hard and this should be recognised by everyone involved in education to prevent it from driving out passionate and highly skilled teachers from our profession.

Reflections on being in charge.

Last half term I took over my department while my HoCA took maternity leave to have a gorgeous baby girl.

So after a month as Head of Curriculum Area, what exactly have I learnt?

Have a strong leadership team.

When I stepped up to HoCA the media coordinator stepped up to second in department. This was a big ask as she was only a few months into her first leadership role and still finding her way round the minefield of middle management.

I have really enjoyed mentoring her these past few months and watching her grow as a middle manager, but she had been a fantastic support to me too. She has supported me and we’ve discussed ideas and begun collaborating on moving the department forward in the fledgling media GCSE and how we can make KS3 as strong as KS4 next year.

Don’t take things personally.

I’ve always been able to brush off criticisms and expletives from my students, but it’s a different feeling when it comes from people who only a few weeks before were complaining with you not at you!

When running a department, I’ve noticed, you take on the qualities of a phone line for my department. I am now a direct line to SLT, heads of houses, heads of year, parents etc. I’ve noticed that people complain to me and expect me to fix it or pass it up. And although I know that’s how it should be, it does take a toll. During the beginning of a stressful week a lot of aggro was heading in my direction and it really brought me down but after a couple of days I realised I was just the receiver for the stress and unhappiness and not the cause. Once I had this crystallising moment I found it a lot easier to deal with.

Don’t be afraid to let people know if they’ve made a mistake.

It’s not a nice part of being in charge, but if people make mistakes, you need to talk to them about it. Dedicated teachers don’t make mistakes on purpose, they are the result of a lack of understanding or a lack of time & increase in stress. But you need to talk to them to find out the root of the error as whatever the reason it needs to be fixed and a good leader should not leave a team member struggling if they need help.

However, the way in which you handle this conversation is key. I’ve worked with middle managers who don’t appear to realise there may be a good reason a teacher had made a mistake and have escalated to SLT far too quickly or have used a tone far too harsh for a teacher who is struggling to cope with a demanding work load. These poor decisions by middle managers mean that I have also comforted many angry and upset colleagues who feel unsupported and told off unfairly. I’ve learnt from this and tried to make sure I have a face to face conversation rather than an emailed one as it’s allowed me to ask if my team member is OK and, at the few times it’s been necessary, offer support.

But having this difficult conversation had meant that mistakes are not repeated and people have thanked me for taking the time to speak to them and thank me for my consideration.

Ask for help when you need it.

It can sometimes be hard to ask for help, but when you’re in charge, especially if it’s your first time, it is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your team and your students.

So far, I have asked for help from the head of sixth form, my LM, an assistant head, my team and ex-colleagues. This assistance has been about how to deal with a difficult parent who’s also a staff member; a class ganging up on a teacher; delegation of Y11 revision day etc. Each time I’ve asked for help I’ve felt myself getting stronger as a leader.

Say thank you.

I’ve always believed that “Thank you” was very powerful, but it’s even more so when it comes from someone in management. Teaching can, at times, be thankless: parents, students and SLT can often get the balance between criticism and compliment / gratitude wrong and it can wear people down.

I’ve made sure I’ve thanked everyone for giving me help when I asked for it and for those moments when they went above and beyond. But I’ve also made sure I thanked my team just for doing their job: teaching, especially in exam season, is brutal and you can see the lift saying “thank you” gives someone.

Take time for yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing one evening a week or one day of the weekend. There is always another item in the to do list, but if you don’t listen to your body and rest when you need it you’re no good to your team or your students.

Prioritising is important, but so is being honest with people if you think the deadline is impossible. There is always work to be done, but is it more important than my husband, my family or my friends?

I feel like I managed a successful work / life balance during the easter holidays. I took the bank holiday weekend off and then went into school Tuesday to Friday to work. Once I left on Friday, no work was to be done in my holiday week. Yes, I didn’t get everything done, but because I ended the term by prioritising my to do list the world didn’t end because I didn’t reach the end of my to do list! And it meant I started the busiest term of the year refreshed, re-energised and ready to hit the ground running. And it worked: we had a strong start to this term.

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my first few months in charge: they’ve not been easy, but I’ve really enjoyed them and learnt a lot.