Talk about Lesson Study, and then talk some more

I had never heard of Lesson Study until I moved to the UK and started working at Central Primary school[1]. I first noticed Lesson Study in our termly staff calendar. I remember seeing the word neriage in the document and googling it, thinking that it sounds interesting. My initial interest was sparked with that. Then a whole year passed and I don’t remember anyone mentioning Lesson Study anywhere in our school. I’m still not sure if Lesson Study was taking place or not, but if it did, it was done very quietly.

I only got involved in Lesson Study almost a year later, when our Head Teacher told me that it would be beneficial for us to undergo some Lesson study to develop our phonics teaching further. And at that point, I was not really in a position to say no, it was my boss “asking” after all, but I also was not overly excited about participating, as I did not really know what it was about. A whole year had passed and I hadn’t heard anyone talk about Lesson study so I was really unsure what to expect.

Now two years later, as our school is, for the second time, planning on integrating Lesson Study into our school development plan, my own experience with the introduction to Lesson study turns out to be a very important one. This time around we are planning on being anything but quiet about Lesson Study. As it turns out that Lesson Study is more successful in a school, when people talk about it.

It needs to become one of those things, that you hear people talking about in the staff room, laughing about, sharing thoughts about and agreeing a coffee date to plan the next lesson. Only then, when others filling their tea cups close by, start listening into these conversations and think to themselves, “Oh that sounds fun. Wonder if I could get involved.” Only then will Lesson Study work in an organisational way.

Over the past two years, I’ve had a crash course to Lesson study[2]and during this time I’ve heard and read enough to understand that there are a lot of other hurdles that schools need to overcome to embed Lesson Study to their everyday practice.

And I do not disagree. Hurdles of time, organisational changes, introducing teachers to research, creating a school culture that fosters professional discussions and time again – all are among the things that schools need to sort out first. But after that, the key to making Lesson Study stick, is to get people talking about it, to get people wanting in. It’s like creating that queue outside a new trendy restaurant. That’s what we want!

But to create that, Lesson study really needs to be marketed well. I say marketed, as it really is about perception. Lesson Study only becomes desirable to teachers when they realise that it is worth the extra work. Just like queuing for a table is worth that extra work as you know that once you get inside you’ll be treated to a tasty meal. And how do these restaurants become trendy? By people talking about their success.

And that is what Lesson Study needs as well. It needs a crowd of people who have gained a new experience, new learning and, very importantly, had a good time while doing it, talking about it, creating that imaginary trendy queue so that everyone wants to get together and work collaboratively observing and giving feedback.

With Lesson Study particularly, this might be very difficult to achieve. Lesson Study teams can quite often fail or create too much dissonance that is not dealt with in a professional manner, which can result in teachers talking about Lesson Study in a more negative way. And if the reputation of Lesson Study is badly damaged, it is very difficult to rebuild.

But when there is a success story and that buzz within staff about Lesson Study meetings, it is much more likely for Lesson Study to become a meaningful part of school development and hence, teachers’ professional development.

For me, as my initial interest to Lesson Study was sparked by a single word written in tiny font in a termly memo, my journey to Lesson Study might have been a lot quicker if I would have heard my colleagues talking about it. I would have most likely been one of those people queuing to get in.

And now, as I am amongst the people that can spark the interest of others, and I do work in a school where most of the hurdles have been overcome, I try to remember to talk about Lesson Study as often as possible. The chances are that someone is listening and soon wants to get involved as well.

 

[1]Now if you have never heard about Lesson study but you are interested, I recommend to go to http://lessonstudy.co.uk/lesson-study-a-handbook/

[2]Thanks to working with Dr John Mynott and participating the Chartered College Network Events that he so brilliantly hosts.

Being in the middle

At the beginning of this academic year I took on a middle-leader position in our school, as I became the English subject leader. When I told this to my colleagues and friends back in Finland, I normally heard one of these two responses. “What is that?” which is because in Finland, the school structure does not accommodate middle-leadership posts (at least not in a similar way that the system in the UK does). Or second “How can a Finn be the English subject leader?” since they thought that being the English subject leader only required perfect knowledge of the English language. Six-months to the job, I can now tell you that it does not require that, but having at least a fluent level of English does make one a bit more credible in the job.

With these preconceptions in mind, stepping into my new role last September was quite a challenge and it’s taken some time to get used to it and still find myself puzzled about the role I have taken on. But at the same time, after half a year in the job, I have to admit it is one of the best things I could have ever even imagined when imagining my job as a teacher. And since I studied and trained in a country, where the position doesn’t even exist, I couldn’t have even imagined doing this role before relocating to the UK.

For those who think middle leadership in schools is very common worldwide, this might come as a surprise. Although I didn’t find any actual data for this, looking through some booklets produced by the National College for Teaching and Leadership[1], they seemed to train middle-leaders worldwide but to exemplify there are only 9 countries in Europe where this training has taken place: Finland not being one of them. My understanding is that having a middle-leadership structure in a school is rare rather than common.

Obviously when I trained and worked in Finland, I never thought that this was a disadvantage of our system. Although, maybe on some level I did think that. Let me explain why.

When you train to become a teacher in Finland, you undertake a 5-year long Master’s Degree in Education. During that time, you will do four placements, at least three of them in a specific university linked teaching school, engage in educational psychology, immerse in pedagogies and didactics of each and every subject taught in a primary school, choose a subject to specialise in and finally write up a master’s thesis with either a qualitative or quantitative twist.

Then you graduate and work as a class teacher for the next 40 odd years. For someone who stays in the same position for the next 40 years of their career, that seems an awful lot of ground work that could be utilised in different positions in a school to have a huge impact on teaching and learning.

To be honest, the system in Finland is not that black and white. When the years pass by you might get a responsibility. Like being responsible for the music instruments or the lights in the hall. Or the sound system. Or maybe the ICT resources. This kind of responsibility will not really make a difference to your job or in your professional development, unless you know nothing about the sound system and you now have to learn it. A responsibility usually is just another tedious job that someone has to take care of and someone above thinks it might just as well be you. This job does not really make you a leader of anything. It does not give you an opportunity to develop, to be in the middle of it.

Now in Finland, if you are interested, and you do want to continue your professional development, you might study a bit more and show interest in leadership. If that is the case, you might apply and be appointed as an assistant head teacher, deputy or even the Head one day. But if you are not, you are just going to continue being a class teacher with an additional responsibility for the rest of your career.

For me this always felt somehow flat. Until I moved to the UK, I didn’t really know why. Now I have a pretty good idea. Becoming a middle-leader, whether it’s a subject leader or Key Stage leader, allows you to take on another role in the school. It’s the role of a leader. And that is a very important role that requires a separate set of skills and traits. It is a role that the seed was planted through your training, but it only really starts growing during your years in teaching.

And in the best case scenario, it gives you another purpose in your profession, another reason to get to work every morning.

After working in two structurally very different systems, I have to say that I’m much more inclined to say that a school system that can open up new opportunities to teachers within your school, another avenue for professional development, is much more appealing than one, where you spend a long time studying to then continue working under the same job description for the rest of your career.

In the current climate of teacher shortages and issues around teacher retention, middle-leadership should and can be used as a means to provide opportunities for teachers to grow into not only better teachers but also leaders within your school. I think that’s exactly what happened with me and what hopeful has happened to most of the teachers who have taken on a middle-leader position.

Of course there are pitfalls. In a school system where the teacher workload continues to be a constant worry, adding on the new responsibilities for monitoring a subject or key stage and observing as well as giving feedback to fellow teachers can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are means to ease up that workload. Our Head Teacher is very aware of the added job load of his middle leaders and values the work that they do. Hence, every middle-leader gets an addition PPA (Planning, Preparation and Assessment) time slot every week to undertake these tasks.

From the school’s perspective, it is incredibly valuable that someone devotes their time into having a comprehensive view of how a subject is being taught in the school. The job of evaluating the subject’s curriculum, engaging with relevant research and bringing new knowledge and evidence into the realm of the lessons while at the same time challenging teachers to develop their own subject knowledge or understanding of the planning for the subject, is incredibly valuable. According to a Guardian article[2]it is critical for building and maintaining an outstanding school.

For me the English subject leadership has been an amazing opportunity to develop my subject knowledge in English, engage with all the teachers in my school and have a meaning position along my normal day job that has really allowed me to challenge myself.

At the same time, being the English leader has almost felt like an honorary position. Of course middle-leadership positions also affect your salary through the Teaching and Learning Responsibilities (TLR) but more than that, it is a position where you have power to influence and make meaningful changes. Or if you are very lucky and in a position where things do not need to be changed at that moment, just sitting not at the top, but in the middle, and enjoying the view of how things, you are in charge of just happen around you, day after day.

[1]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/404327/archived-international-programme-middle-leaders-prospectus.pdf

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/jul/02/middle-leaders-driving-change-school

 

“In Early Years, children just play.”

By Abbas Jaffer

I am delighted to share a guest blog post written by my colleague and year group partner Abbas Jaffer, who works at Central Primary as a Year 1 teacher and KS1 leader.

 

If I had a penny for every time I’d heard this, I’d have £1.48. At least. It is not so much the sentence that gets me, but the intonation with which it is said, often by people who mean well.

Firstly, play should never be under-estimated. It is the most powerful vehicle and catalyst that we have as teachers and parents to expand our children’s minds. When children are playing, they don’t realise they are learning. This helps them to truly engage in the learning. Secondly, as well as ‘play’, the children also learn to read and write, solve complex maths problems, eat communally, paint, create, imagine, draw, investigate and explore the world around them.

Whilst I won’t go into it now, there is much research into the benefits of learning through play, which is known as ‘child-initiated learning’ (CIL for short). This is not the children teaching themselves, but them choosing from activities that adults have carefully considered and planned, based on the children’s interests. Adults are crucial in making this work. In fact, they are the difference in transforming “just play” into “outstanding learning”.

As you can probably tell, I am a firm believer in child-initiated learning. This is down to the 3 years I spent in Reception, working alongside some of the most diligent and extraordinary teachers you could hope to meet. I saw and was a part of outstanding CIL. However, most Year 1 settings do not continue with it, which can be a huge shock to children who had been getting over 2 hours of CIL a day.

This said, with me being in Year 1 this year, I wanted the children to continue learning through exploration, by following their interests. However, after a few weeks of trialling CIL in Year 1 as it was working in Reception, I realised that I cannot just replicate Reception-style CIL in Year 1. It just does not work, for several reasons: smaller classroom sizes, less adults, raised expectations, a broader curriculum, children being that much older, and basically having too much to do and not enough time to do it.

This is where (after a bit of trial-and-improvement) the idea of Project Time was born. The afternoons in our Year 1 classrooms are now split into two Project Times. The first is similar to a typical lesson and the second is similar to child-initiated learning. Both of these are centred around a weekly theme (so far we have had ‘The UK’, ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘Light and Dark’ and ‘The Gingerbread Man’). During the first session, the children have a lesson, then do an activity in their books or sometimes a more practical activity, which prepares them for the even higher expectations of Year 2. The second session of Project time enables them to explore a variety of activities, which cover a range of curriculum areas. This enables them to continue what had been and should be an integral part of their education. In this way, Year 1 becomes the stepping stone from Reception to Year 2.

We live in a world where children are growing up too quickly and under a government that is increasing expectations year on year. However, when all is said and done, we must remember that they are just children. And if they want to “just play”, then let them. But do it well.

Teaching children to read, and talk

One of the key aspects of teaching Year 1 anywhere in the world is most likely to be teaching children to read. This was definitely the case in Finland, where during my two years of teaching, I was able to teach in my mother tongue, children to read in their mother tongue, since majority of the children I taught had Finnish as their first language. Also the children in my classroom back in Finland were ready and eager to learn to read at the age of 7 and had been exposed to the language for their whole life. Many of them already read by the time they stepped into my classroom. Without sounding too naïve, I dare to say that teaching children to read in those circumstances was relatively straightforward.

Now let me give you a short summary of where I found myself after I relocated to the UK. I now teach in my second language a group of children of whom majority did not speak English as their first language either. The children are two years younger, had not been exposed to one culture and language for the first years of their lives but instead often to a mix of cultures and languages. I teach them a language (English) that by all measures is very demanding phonetically.

No wonder, teaching children to read in my new job turned out to be a bit trickier than in Finland.

Continue reading “Teaching children to read, and talk”

One Hundred Lessons of Solitude

People who do not know the ins and outs of a teacher’s life does not believe me, when I say that I used to be very lonely in my job. “How can you be lonely in a classroom full of children?” one would say. Or “we are all lonely”, another might comment. And while both of these are valid points, they don’t take away the feeling I had. Although your days as a teacher are filled with laughter, cries and bubbly chatter in your classroom, sometimes you feel like the loneliest person in the world.

Continue reading “One Hundred Lessons of Solitude”

The schoolbooks I once had

Finland really is the promised land for schoolbook publishers. I wasn’t able to find any real data for this, but I feel confident to say that a very large majority of primary schools use schoolbooks in their teaching. Every subject had its own book series and teachers followed them quite happily. Students are very proud of their books, especially the first Finnish book that you get to keep as a memory from the first year of school. Things are changing in Finland with the new curriculum and the call for active and multidisciplinary teaching, but the books are still there and don’t seem to be going anywhere. At Central however, they are long gone.
It’s not really one of the things you’d come to think of to ask in your job interview. “I do have one question. Do you use schoolbooks in your school?” Coming to think of it, maybe it should be, since the answer can make quite a difference to your job as a teacher. I had some colleagues back in Finland who took a job in a school that was experimenting with bookless teaching. I heard their stories and thought, that’s a lot of work, and not for me. Only to find myself a few years later in that exact situation.

Continue reading “The schoolbooks I once had”

A lifelong learning journey

It’s a beginning of a new school year. How do I know, you ask? Set aside for a second the fact that I spent a week getting my classroom ready for the new children, ordering and labelling books, sorting through resources and now getting to know 30 new children and their parents, what really made me realise that it’s a beginning of a new school year is that my head teacher handed over a three-page form that I need to fill in outlining my personal development targets for the year. It’s part of my performance management. And it’s no joke; it really is three pages long.

Continue reading “A lifelong learning journey”

My first year at Central

The last day of term I ran into my head teacher in the dining hall on my way in. “Congratulations, you survived your first year of teaching at Central!”

I said thanks and walked into my classroom thinking, yes I did indeed. Not that I really ever had a doubt in my mind. What I didn’t expect was that I would actually enjoy it as much as I do. Don’t take me wrong, this year was no walk in the park. Actually quite the opposite, but the mind works mysterious ways and maybe that is exactly why I feel this way right now. I got through it.

Continue reading “My first year at Central”

The joys of report writing

It’s common knowledge that teacher around the world find writing reports stressful and challenging. I was not expecting it to be any different here. I was also not expecting that every child in our school gets a report that is two pages long and includes individual comments about the progress of the student in every subject also including the highlights of the academic year. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the Word document and realised just how much work it would be. Far behind were my days in Finland teaching in Year 1 where I would just choose the suitable option from three step assessment, evaluating each subject as a whole. There were no individual comments, actually not even a possibility to comment because it was all done through a system where you would juts input the numbers.

Continue reading “The joys of report writing”

Welcome to the world of Phonics

I hear sounds in my head. Letters float around in the air in front of my eyes and anytime the bump into each other, they make a sound. Ay, oy, ar, ow, ey.

I wake up and I immediately feel restless. Another dream about sounds. I sit up although it’s way too early to wake up and think about what is happening. Words in English that once seemed so simple now haunt me. I search for the correct sounds day and night. I draw buttons and boxes to try to make sense of the words in a way I had never before. “Welcome to the world of Phonics!” I say to myself before laying back down hoping to get some more rest.

Continue reading “Welcome to the world of Phonics”