I teach, therefore I am.
I love my job. I am irritatingly smug about it and feel – on a daily basis – insanely lucky to be a teacher. One of the many aspects that I am currently enjoying is learning about building an English department. The joy of being at the beginning of a school’s journey is that along the way I’m also involved in learning how to build a whole school. With this in mind, I’ve been given the chance to visit other successful schools; to get an insight into what makes a great English department and how this ties in with the creation of a great school.
My first trip took place last week, when I visited KEGS in Chelmsford. I had met the Headteacher, Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) when I attended my first TeachMeet, which took place at his school. I’ve since become an avid reader of his blog and have been inspired by his vision for education. Through reading KEGS’ publication, ‘Learning Lessons’, I had also built up a picture of the impressive work of the English Department at his school and was keen to see this in action. A few DMs on Twitter later and I had a visit arranged.
The day started at 7am as Tom and I shared the commute from London to Chelmsfield. “This is my office” he joked of the train carriage, as he explained how he could often bump into colleagues or pupils en route to school – an insight into the commitment of a HeadTeacher! Half an hour whizzed by as we enthusiastically discussed the world of education in all its gorgeous complexity. This was a good omen for how the day was to proceed.
Arriving at school, we did a quick drop by the staffroom for more ‘EdChat’ with the KEGS staff, including Tim Worrall (@musotim) the Head of Music who was alive with inspiration after having attended the infamous education bloggers’ curry night the previous Friday: “you look around and think – these people want to change the world!”
Replenished with good chat – and coffee – we took a quick detour to a Year 9 classroom, where Tom picked up three of his students to have a mini-department meeting; the boys were leading the lesson later in the day as part of a co-construction project. “Remember you need to link to last lesson’s learning.” Tom reminded them. “We could test them.” “Yes, how?” “Whiteboards!” the students exclaimed, much to Tom’s joy: “That’s all them, I haven’t used whiteboards with this class.”I was to see this in action later on, but first it was off to the English Department.
Seeing other teachers in their classroom is a rare and joyful experience. I’m always moved by how humble most teachers are about their own teaching and this was evident in both lessons I observed. Students were ‘effortlessly’ embedding quotations in their answers; responding positively to challenging, probing questions and building on each others work. Of course, any teacher knows that this is not achieved without a huge amount of effort over weeks, months, sometimes years; yet for both Emma and Jo they were just ‘regular’ lessons. Yet what I saw in these two classrooms, was something which I imagine is sadly not ‘ regular’ throughout our schools; great teachers teaching great lessons. This was not because they were doing something flashy or kooky but because they had built strong relationships with their classes and had created a culture of engagement and challenge. This doesn’t just happen. In the Year 8 class, the boys were enthusiastically reading the end of ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’. Their savouring of the language and their confidence performing in groups was evident from the go. So why was this? I asked. The answer was simple but brilliant: the department had made ‘Reading Aloud’ a key focus of their teaching and learning; conducting a number of action research projects in this area and sharing this within and across departments. I didn’t need to see the statistics to see that this was working.
Meeting with both Tom and with the Head of English, David Greenwood, confirmed that this teaching and learning research drive came from departments and the individual teachers rather than as a top-down approach. Trust in staff and trust between students and staff is central to the school culture. The school management is happy to invest in the work/research as directed by their teachers’ interests.
I asked David to explain how this worked and he reminded me that the key was to pick a focus and start small. For the English Department, this had meant a focus on ‘reading aloud’ – inspired by reading the work of Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges – which lead to several focus groups and class projects over the last couple of years, including an impressive cross-curricular ‘Poetry from Heart’ project. It seems obvious to start with your own and your department’s teaching but often we can get fixated on school-wide projects, the latest teaching techniques, or (god forbid) the blog post trending on Twitter. Meeting with David and Tom, as well as observing the lessons reminded me that it’s really about the passion for your subject and the drive to work out the best way to deliver this to your students.
For Tom, this has included co-construction work in his classroom. I completed my day by seeing this in action during a Chemistry practical, where he bravely allowed his students to lead an experiment which involved their peers wielding not one but TWO bunsen burners (my last memory of bunsen burners comes from my own GCSE Chemistry lesson where my friend leaned into the burner and singed off her fringe – she then leant back in shock and almost burnt the rest off too). Luckily his trust was well placed and the students in charge played teachers with panache – including walking around to groups to check on their progress and gently reprimanding those who weren’t focused. The lead student teacher even added a surprise plenary, asking someone in the class to summarise what they had learnt during the experiment – resulting in an answer which left the adult teachers in the room visibly impressed.
Leaving at the end of the day, I felt inspired and also proud. Proud to be part of a wide educational community which fosters such great teaching; proud to be an English teacher and proud to be taking back to my findings to a school which is also dedicated to harnessing academic passion to drive teaching and learning. I hope we will be able to look back in a few years and see a school which has fulfilled this potential. Starting small but aiming high; perhaps even to ‘change the world’.