What Not To Do

current-issue.largerBreakfast reading for the past six months or has been The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is attempt to both keep brain active and also avoid reading in any depth about Brexit and British Problems which all UK journals appear to be (probably) rightly obsessed with and which (probably) wrongly I have a desperate desire to avoid. Over toast (locally sourced sourdough, naturally) and coffee (black, naturally) I delved into article titled ‘Yes, America Can Still Lead The World’ (cheekily provocative title) wherein I was struck by a quote from Harvard economics professor Michael Porter who has apparently said that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Immediately struck dumb by apparent obviousness of statement, resonance with what I’ve been saying for the past couple of years in leadership meetings (colleagues no doubt bored to tears by my constant refrain of ‘yes, but if we do that what are we Not Going To Do?’) and deceptive difficulty in carrying through on aforementioned quote.

By some strange quirk of coincidence this quote is read the day after teaching year 9 about notions of interdependence, for I think it is this idea of interdependence that is central to Porter’s observation. For if strategy is too complex, too convoluted, then surely this creates more opportunities for errors? Complex strategy that focuses exclusively on Things We Are Going To Do runs the risk of failing to predict the interactions of the multiple strategy actions we put in place. Better surely to say “we will do this, and by doing this it means we cannot/should not do that because if we do This AND That it will potentially cause The Other (where The Other is something unpleasant and counter-productive to the aim of the strategy)”.

What does this have to do with education? Well, a lot I think. One example would be the battle against The Content. A bad strategy would be predicated on all the students having to get through all the content regardless, whilst a good strategy would be predicated on ensuring students are securing knowledge before moving onto the next piece of content. In this instance the strategy of choosing What Not To Do is inherent in that decision to be prepared to possibly/probably/definitely not cover all of the content. Again, this is much easier to say/write than to do in practice, particularly for heavily knowledge based subjects and teachers who may be very Set In Their Ways (the words pot black and kettle spring to mind here to which I plead Guilty As Charged).

Another example might be around assessment/marking strategies and teacher workload. If a school leaders’ strategy is to lessen workload (and it possibly/probably/definitely should be) by implementing less frequent but still effective assessment schedules then it is in the interests of everyone to clearly communicate What Not To Do (e.g. DO NOT mark every piece of work, DO NOT mark every line of every piece of work etc). Focus of monitoring/EQ procedures could similarly align with this consideration of What Not To Do and be predicated on nudging colleagues away from those practices and into thoughts on What To Do With All That Gained Time! Strategies for which might include Reading The Atlantic Monthly magazine over breakfast. Well, it’s a thought, right?


Currently reading Mr John Le Carré’s second George Smiley novel ‘A Murder of Quality’ and struck by the language of teaching used by some of the characters. The book was written (and by assumption set) in 1962 but it is suffused very much with a pre-(Second World)war feel. This is partly because the book is very much in the spirit of a Golden Age detective story and partly because it helps reinforce the notion of the private school in question being Terribly Old Fashioned and desperate to hang on to pre-(Great)war class structures and sentiments. As an aside, this resonates strongly with two other novels I have just finished, ‘The Village’ and ‘Tory Heaven’, both by Marghanita Laski and both of which I cannot recommend highly enough. (As additional aside, remind self to prepare rigorous riposte to challenges from colleagues wondering Where You Find The Time to read so many novels and therefore unspoken Why Are You Not Working All Waking Hours Like Me?).

As an ageing Provincial Teacher however the main point from Mr Le Carré’s story that strikes me as interesting is when the teachers at the Old Fashioned Private School refer to doing “exam corrections” and to “correcting work”. Immediately I read those words I am myself transported back to own childhood and vividly recall teachers talking in same language (this despite own school hardly being Illustrious or Celebrated Private School but Bog Standard Secondary in Scotland).

It strikes me that many teachers of the Traditionalist Persuasion might appreciate a subtle shift back to using the term ‘corrections’ when perusing students’ books and work. Indeed, on reflection am somewhat startled to think that Mr Gove did not propose this when he was Ultimate Leader of Education in England and Wales. What is our role, after all, if not to correct misconceptions and to highlight Where It’s Gone Wrong?

Immediately determine to start using ‘corrections’ in place of ‘marking’ and/or ‘feedback’ in all Leadership meetings if only to see horrified reactions of colleagues around table. Simple pleasures and all that, what?

On Resilience

Alerted today to an online survey that proclaims an ability to determine a ‘resilience score’ through the completion of a range of questions. Feel certain that wording of questions arrived at through studied Scientific Approach yet cannot bring self (or find time within Busy Schedule) to proceed further than number 20 of 180. Strongly suspect that survey has been devised by people with Too Much Time On Their Hands and therefore most emphatically not employed within the Public Sector. Convinced also that on completing question 180 result would simply be ‘Congratulations! By completing this survey you have proven yourself to be 100% resilient to mind-numbing tedium! Detailed feedback from your responses has already been sold to Google, Facebook and The Russians and will be used to send you individualised advertising.’

Immediately forward link to J and suggest online survey as activity for next PSHE day. It would certainly fill a hefty amount of lesson time, encourage students to work independently and thereby significantly lower planning time for colleagues and contribute magnificently to Lessening Workload. Job done.

Silver Linings

8.45am, first day back after half term and our school network grinds to a halt. Our stalwart IT technician team (now significantly reduced in number following years of Government cuts to education budgets) leaps into action and switches things off and on again. Switching off and on again appears to only temporarily fix the problem and the rest of the morning is spent watching colleagues descend into troughs of despair and panic. In a burst of intermittent connectivity B fires off an email to the rest of leadership team exclaiming that WE CANNOT SAFEGUARD WITHOUT THE INTERNET. Somewhat heartened to read a response from J moments later bemoaning the fact that he also hopes our Internet Problems are quickly fixed because it is having a negative impact on his ability to listen to Apple Music playlists in his office. Resist temptation to respond to J with a barbed quip about this being a blessing for the rest of us who do not share a predilection for Queen and to B with a reserved observation that in the pre-Internet Age we seemed to Manage Just Fine.

Feel certain that some hardy youngsters who have determined to truant from double Science will no doubt emerge victorious in their endeavours today thanks to inability of electronic registers to fully track their every movement. Also enjoy a morning otherwise devoid of emails and actually manage to Get Things Done. In every cloud Silver Lining and all that.

Geography not History

Last day of term. 9.10am. Email arrives with good news saying that I am still not teaching History next year. Bad news is that I will be teaching Geography instead. Reflect on fact that I have not considered anything to do with Geography for at least 38 years and that only thing I remember is term ‘Oxbow lake’. Try and remember what an oxbow lake actually is or how it is formed but almost immediately lose interest.

Consider It fortunate that recent purchase of waterproof jacket in the Finisterre sales will undoubtably make me Best Dressed Geography Teacher In The County. Assure self that whilst bar on that accolade is set remarkably low this is Hardly My Fault.

History/Not History

Email from M today telling me that next year I will be teaching two lessons of History. Another email ten minutes later assures me this is not the case. Later I overhear extended conversations between colleagues attempting to finalise timetables for the new academic year. Our last day of term is the day after tomorrow. Recall leadership team meetings in Autumn in which it was categorically stated that THIS year the timetable would be completed early in order to fully prepare for September. Fully expect to hear the same conversations in Autumn this year and to be writing a minimally edited version of this at the same time in 2019. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Not Research Based

Another Senior Team Meeting drags on interminably towards sunset. Much of the meeting again feels like stream of consciousness outpouring that has gone around in a strangely hypnotic circle. Pinch myself to ensure that I have not in fact fallen asleep and drifted into Joycian reveries.

I haven’t.

Meeting is punctuated by one hilarious moment when reviewing recent CPL session where various colleagues presented in Teach Meet style. T contributes to discussion by revealing that he was pleasantly surprised by effectiveness of approach after admitting deep mistrust of “those Teach Meet things” which, he suggests, “are only excuses for teachers to promote their blogs and look for routes out of the classroom”. Feel vague sense of unease and worry that T has somehow seen through the cloak of invisibility around Provincial Teacher and is making barely hidden reference to own previously published views on matter. Quick check on viewing statistics for Diary reassure me that this is Exceptionally Unlikely.

Hilarity increases when T admits that his stance on Teach Meets is not entirely Research Based given he has never in fact been to one. M immediately sulks and asks whether ANYONE in the team attended the Teach Meet events that he presented at. Sulk increases in intensity when mutterings around table leave no doubt that everyone had Far Better Things To Do on those evenings.

How difficult can it be?

Glanced at my Electronic Diary this morning and aghast to realise I have not added an entry since February. FEBRUARY! Immediately make resolution to Get A Grip, Man Up and otherwise Manage My Time more effectively. Make resolution too to Stop Using So Many Capitals and immediately decide that this is a Bad Idea.

Decide to record in diary how aghast I generally am also regarding spelling and grammar. Reflect that first sentence in this paragraph is somewhat awkward and probably poorly structured or grammatically incorrect and conclude that rules do not apply to me. Especially my own.

In all seriousness however I regularly hold head in hands in disbelief at the quality of written work from colleagues, which in general ranges from passably literate to abysmally incoherent. Immediately worry that ‘abysmally incoherent’ is in truth an oxymoron and is a phrase to be avoided. I do appreciate that colleagues are under immense pressure and that there is precious little time to reflect and edit before hitting ‘send’, but Still And All. How difficult can it be?

All of this brought into stark relief this week thanks to my taking over editing of the leavers’ Year Book. Tutors are therefore sending me Words Of Wisdom and farewells to their year 11 students, each of which appear to be liberally peppered with spelling errors and/or typos. Currently resisting temptation to print these off, mark with green pen, give a GCSE level and return to pigeonholes. ‘Must Do Better’ would be scrawled across the top/bottom of almost all (goes without saying that this would be in addition to some individual, targeted AFL feedback).

Also, double spacing at the end of sentences. WHO STILL DOES THIS? Answer: far too many people who are young enough to know better. By which I mean that if you are Of A Certain Age and learned to type on an analogue typewriter then I will cut you a tiny amount of slack whilst still secretly judging you on my own experience (I miss-spent much of my youth hammering on ancient typewriter keys in Kerouac-inspired outpourings of purple hued prose but even I learned that single spacing is the rule in a digital format).

But at least they are not writing in Comic Sans.

See-Saw (or Stating The Bleedin’ Obvious (again))

Email from J to leadership team this morning with a link to this. J is studying for a Masters at the moment, hence the steady stream of group messages with links to articles no-one else has time to read, let alone digest. Cannot resist taking a look however and skim through article over coffee. Cannot help but think article States The Bleeding’ Obvious to some extent and cannot help but also admit that this is me being old and cynical. One idea does connect, however, and it is over the fact that ‘orderly’ is often confused with ‘authoritarian’. Feel need to State Bleedin’ Obvious myself and add that this confusion exists on both sides of the tiresome ‘prog vs trad’ divide. Feel certain this is all about finding the sweet spot on the see-saw where as teachers we balance authority/control with the skill of establishing positive learning relationships with both individuals and the group as a whole. That the sweet spot changes on a daily basis even within the same group and even within the timeframe of a lesson is surely what makes the job so exhausting but thrilling, no?

Same old song – reprise

Morning spent placating Computer Science team about directive to spend some of their hard-pressed curriculum time on checking whether all students can successfully log in to <insert name of online learning technology here>. Unable to supply convincing answer as to why this needs to take place or what to do when members of the Computer Science team discover that <insert name of random student here> has lost little card with login details and/or Technical Issues Arise. Suggest shrug of shoulders may be most appropriate response and resist temptation to suggest sending <insert name of random student here> to offices of aforesaid colleagues so excited about implementing <insert name of online learning technology here> as whole school system despite no whole school hardware capacity being in place.

Upside of whole sorry situation is that I have been listening again to the sounds of The Creation.