Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally

This acronym is something I remember being taught in maths at school, something to do with the order of operations. I don’t actually remember what the acronym means, so … either the maths teacher was crap, acronyms don’t work, or I have never had to use order of operations since I was sixteen so my memory couldn’t be bothered to store this once vital information. How can we tell? What factors decide what information we hold onto and what we forget?

Oh God with a capital G who lives in the heavens, I would believe in you if you could answer me this. And not just in one context, with one class, one student, just for one year. If you could give me the holy grail of education- getting students to recall the relevant information at the right time, in the right context, I would worship you every day. It is the foundation of learning, the building block of abstract thought and without it we are lost because we can only build on the knowledge we have, so I need my students to remember the basics before we can get onto the complex. But, what we know about how this works is exceedingly limited. There is very little educational research that can be generalised across society because education involves humans, and for me it involves teenage humans who are notoriously fickle (according to my schema). Humans are difficult to pin down, they bring their emotions to the situation, their cultural associations, their upbringing and everything that is happening to them and has happened to them. Is it surprising that what works in one case, does not work with another? Teachers are also bringing elements of themselves to the situation. Believe me, teaching the role of the father in the psychology of attachment is a real bitch when your own father is dying, then dead and then you attend his funeral. It makes answering students’ questions about dads an emotional rollercoaster. I taught that element of the spec. really badly that year, really badly.

So what has this got to do with good old Aunt Sally? Well, working out what works in education is really hard. If anybody tells you they have the answer with any certainty, immediately check how much money they plan to make, and then tell them that they are wrong. Education is littered with the skeletons of the dead and expensive ideas that teachers have been told were the panacea. They weren’t, hence their skeletal status. Although some of them still lurch around us like zombies, biting into your pedagogy and killing your brain (see learning styles). So instead of facing these difficulties, acknowledging that when one thing works in one context, it might not work in another, and understanding that it isn’t just because the teachers are a bit shit, we do something else. We create something, something easy to measure and easy to correct- it might be attendance and punctuality for example. Who cares if it is only an issue for a small number of students, particularly if you are looking at attendance and punctuality to lessons? Well, those who can measure it care about it. Attendance and punctuality slots neatly into a spread sheet, and when it decreases it is a victory for a policy implemented to solve a problem that didn’t really exist, but Aunt Sally came to visit. Albeit briefly. Because what is the lasting impact of this policy? Will it improve student attainment? Will it improve student well- being? It certainly doesn’t solve the problems of students who are desperately struggling with mental health issues, being carers for parents, or even those struggling academically with how to write an essay. But hey, the data on attendance and punctuality now looks awesome. So instead of excusing Aunt Sally, I’d like her to fuck off. Totally fuck off out of education. Then we might look at the real problems, with outcomes possibly unmeasurable until years later, and then we really will be doing something that approaches the needs of the students we work with.

P.S. Oxford Dictionary definition of Aunt Sally

1A game played in some parts of Britain in which players throw sticks or balls at a wooden dummy.

1.1count noun A dummy used in the game of Aunt Sally.

1.2count noun A person or thing set up as an easy target for criticism.

I’ve got the power…

The measure of a man (or woman) is what he (or she) does with power. (Plato)

In 1959, French and Raven described five bases of power:

  1. Legitimate – This comes from the belief that a person has the formal right to make demands, and to expect others to be compliant and obedient.
  2. Reward – This results from one person’s ability to compensate another for compliance.
  3. Expert – This is based on a person’s high levels of skill and knowledge.
  4. Referent – This is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness and right to others’ respect.
  5. Coercive – This comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance.

Six years later, Raven added an extra power base:

  1. Informational – This results from a person’s ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something.

I think this one interesting way to examine sources of power within schools. Having been on the receiving end of a particularly patronising whole staff bollocking about deadlines this morning, it reminded me that ideas about power and hierarchies within school have been floating round my head for quite some time, without necessarily really crystallising, except in in the occasional sharp expletive, expressing frustration rather than any well thought out analysis of the places power resides in schools, and how legitimate we consider the power base to be. Teachers wield power in the classroom (well hopefully) in order to ensure students learn, and beyond that, teachers wield power over other teachers in various ways and for various reasons. The SLT power base comes from its legitimacy. In psychology we study reasons for obedience and how much more like we are to obey when authority is legitimate. To increase legitimacy you can dress for it, and SLT certainly do suit it up. Admittedly I look more like I picked up clothes from the floor in the dark and then forced myself through a hedge backwards (as the saying goes). But I don’t do what SLT asks because of fancy suiting. I do it (usually) because their authority is legitimate. But there are limits to this. Because I also have power. I have the power of the expert. Oh yes I do. I am an experienced, knowledgeable teacher. I know more about my subjects than any member of SLT, and I’d hazard a guess that I know as much as, if not more, about pedagogy- certainly the psychology of learning and memory. So SLT do not have the power to tell me how to teach, nor how to plan my lessons. We can discuss pedagogy and teaching strategies, but there is no legitimate authority here; we discuss as equals, or in some cases the power structure is reversed because I am the expert, not SLT. This is where the problem often lies in the assumption of power. From the position of power, the position of expert is often assumed, even when clearly undeserved. And this creates problems in how professionals within a school relate to each other. Assuming that you power remains legitimate independent of context is foolish. I understand that the legitimacy of my power over students diminishes rapidly as they leave the school grounds because it is partly conferred by my location and the role I play within it. The power of a member of the police force to tell me what to do is usually legitimised by uniform; out of it and it is just some stranger shouting at me. SLT must recognise that the legitimacy of their power becomes questionable dependent on context; if not then they forge relationships of resentment or learned helplessness- neither of which are good things.

There is of course one way that SLT can maintain a sense of legitimate power according to the above definitions- they can have referent power. They can engender respect and be considered worthy of it; they can also maintain their expertise. It’s a sad thing to say that referent power is sadly lacking when you stand up and shout at your colleagues, at experts in their field, and expect that your authority remains legitimate without recognising you lack any kind of referent power.


So what is it?

Health, happiness and prosperity?

The ability to deal with life’s challenges?

Maslow would argue it is the ability to achieve self-actualisation, before which, many much more basic needs must be met.

Jahoda: positive attitude towards the self; self-actualisation; autonomy; resistance to stress; environmental mastery; accurate perception of reality.

Well Jahoda, you do get full credit for high expectations and aspirational targets.

I’ll be discussing these ideas in more detail in another blog; first I have some stuff to get off my chest. Each year teacher wellbeing is raised as a concern. The consequences of ignoring wellbeing are clear- burnout, teacher shortage, increased sickness and absence, poor teaching; the list could go on. Wellbeing is key to good teaching; it is a cliché but you cannot pour from an empty cup. You cannot deal with the emotional intensity of teaching a standard classroom teacher time table unless your own cup is full- and it probably shouldn’t be full of gin on a Monday night, especially if it is a pint glass (that is for Friday). Teachers have an individual responsibility to manage their own wellbeing, to be kind to themselves and others, and to recognise when they are reaching the edge. So far, so good. Nobody wants to behave like a twat towards themselves continuously. But sometimes, the individual is overwhelmed by systemic issues that prevent people doing the very things they know will help.

For me this half term is UCAS season, and it is an utter fucking bitch. Students who still have to ask to use the bathroom are making decisions that could be some of the most important in their lives; understandably they are anxious, angry, confused and inconsistent. In practical terms this means many one to one meetings, tears, re-writes, discussions, parental confrontations (for them), parental conversations (for me) and lots of other time consuming and emotionally consuming events. I get to work at 6.30am and I work continuously- maybe a break for lunch- by which I mean I don’t talk and eat at the same time, but I perfect the ability to type one handed. In emotional terms it means I am carrying the projected anxiety and anger, stress and concerns of about 15 teenagers, plus those who have decided they want to share the burden amongst every teacher they know. I have applied for 15 different subjects at universities I will never go to, and I am panicking about potential offers. This week I have hit the edge; physically and mentally, and thank fuckfully there is only one of my tutor group left to finish his UCAS statement. I have been buried within myself emotionally, and struggling to sleep; when I do I have crazy intense dreams- I woke up on Monday convinced I had booked flights to America that I could neither afford, nor use as they weren’t in holiday time. All of these extra things (like ucas) hang around the normal expectations of a classroom teacher- planning, teaching, marking, meetings, one to ones with vulnerable students, cpd and again the list goes on. I know next week is half-term, that I am celebrating the university offers my students are already achieving, that going to the gym and kick boxing the shit out of my personal trainer was a really great thing to do. I really am trying to take care of my own shit.

But what about systemic issues with wellbeing- what does the school do? Last year wellbeing was on the agenda. This year it is not. I don’t know whether that is because we don’t need to think about anymore because everybody has wellbeing, or whether we just don’t care anymore. What I do know is, that despite being on the agenda for a year, and having a group of staff ‘researching’ it; the only suggestion they seemed to come up with was tea and coffee and Costco pastries available from 8.30 am in the staffroom. Not everyday mind you, only on cpd days.

Well that’s solved all my problems. Thanks a fucking bunch. It’s not even good coffee; it tastes like they mixed the dregs of an ashtray with substandard coffee and poured it over lukewarm dogends. And I don’t eat pastries. So my wellbeing is taken care of by me bringing my own coffee and my own breakfast. Um?

So what would enable my wellbeing at work? What systemic changes could be made that would actually enable teachers to take care of their wellbeing, fill their cup if you will?

That’s for the next blog and other wellbeing related subjects are for another blog. I have gin to drink.



The Hierarchy Triptych: this is the first of three pictures

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn…”

Philip Larkin

Repetition Compulsion: we are compelled to repeat the patterns of our early relationships, regardless of how unhealthy this might be. We repeat these patterns in our friendships, our romantic relationships and even in our working relationships.

This concept comes from the psychodynamic perspective in psychology, where childhood determines our adult personality and behaviour. While many Freudian assumptions have been dismissed as baseless fantasy, misogynistic or scientifically unfalsifiable, we should not dismiss an entire school of thought. In many ways the ideas of the psychodynamic perspective have been reformed and re-stated to fit into new psychological paradigms.

According to the tenets of sociology our primary socialisation occurs within the family. It is where we learn how to behave towards other people, and how they will behave towards us. In psychodynamic psychology, the relationships we have with our parents define our personalities, our needs, desires and how we respond to others as adults. Our childhood is our destiny, and we consistently repeat the patterns we learn as children with all other people we encounter. Unconsciously we reproduce emotions and patterns of behaviour with others, and we receive similar feedback that reinforces these responses. In this we move from the psychodynamic approach to the behaviourist. We can also get a little bit cognitive here. Cognitive psychologists might argue that what we have developed are relationship schemas- expectations of how events will occur based on our previous experiences. In this case the patterns of our expectations are reinforced because we only really pay attention to the evidence that fits in to our expected patterns. They colour our interpretation of someone’s behaviour towards us, and if something happens that doesn’t fit, then we might adjust our schema. However, it is more likely we will reinterpret until it matches our schema, or simply dismiss it. It will not be remembered. From any of these perspectives the lesson is that we will replay our family relationships like a Mobius strip.

While we might love our parents, appreciate them and feel secure in their affection, we must remember that parents are people too. They are not perfect, they have made mistakes or perhaps simply done something very normal, but incomprehensible to a child, that left you at times feeling rejected and abandoned. Perhaps it was the time they first left you at school and you didn’t know they would return to pick you up because they had never left you alone in a room of strangers before, or it could have been the time you were ‘lost’ in the supermarket and when you found them again they shouted at you for running away; when you knocked over your glass of orange juice and you were shouted at, even though it was an accident. I hope that there are not more deep seated reasons for your inner child to scream and shout its feelings of abandonment, but we all have those moments. For me, the moment I recall happened on GCSE results day. My results weren’t good enough. The A I got in History was evidence of my lack of application- yes I got an A. But it wasn’t an A*. This crystallised a nagging fear I had been carrying with me since I was very small- without my academic achievements I was not worthy of love and affection. Now my parents weren’t abusive at all. But they were ambitious for me, and education was hugely important to them- for my dad he was the first person in his family to go to university and he had a quality of life and income that had been undreamed of by his parents. Conversely, my mum hadn’t valued her own education at all, until, she felt, far too late. They were both determined I would benefit from the education available, and everything they could do to support me. They built my cultural capital, they bought me all the books, and they hired a tutor when it seemed my primary school wasn’t teaching the maths that their friends’ children were learning. When I was academically successful I was rewarded with smiles and hugs. I never really failed academically, but the fear of failure loomed large. And with this came pressure and perfectionism. This is something that I have carried with me throughout my life; often an unrecognised and unacknowledged burden. A burden placed with the best of intentions because my parents came with their burdens and experiences.

It means that when I feel that I have fallen short of expectations, if I am not judged as perfect, then my world starts to fall apart emotionally. It means that the standards I set for myself are much higher than those I set for anybody else; when I would offer others compassion and understanding, I only give myself criticism and dismissal. While I clearly recognise this potential strength, and potentially dangerous weakness in myself, I must recognise that others cannot see my inner self. We all hold the illusion of transparency- that people can see much more of our internal thought process than is possible, and we expect them to behave accordingly. However, they can’t. We can’t. They know nothing of our psychological triggers and we are usually unable to recognise theirs. It means that in our working relationships we may well be abusing someone’s inner child unintentionally, and their reactions will be unconsciously reminiscent of a screaming toddler, unable to communicate their hurt and anger to what we have just said or done.

This doesn’t just happen in our personal relationships, but in our working relationships. When we interact with colleagues, we are not two value free Vulcan like automatons, but people who have our schemas, our learned responses and an abandoned and angry inner child. All of these things will colour our reactions and responses. In schools, I think this may be particularly true. We work within a very clearly defined (and often patriarchal) hierarchy. This is familiar family territory. Our parents (SLT) tell us what to do and what not to do. We conform or we are punished. But, SLT were fucked up at some point by someone else, so they too hug their inner child very close and hope that each interaction will not hurt it, will not trigger a tantrum.

What can we do? Recognise our own schema, understand why our inner child cries and check our learned responses. Are any of these appropriate anymore? Understand that we might be the trigger for the tantrum in someone else and try to reflect on our behaviour accordingly.

The Middle Triptych: Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?

A Child Centred School

I didn’t promise coherence. I think all schools should be child centred. My musings on this topic were prompted by some feedback I had from an interview I recently attended. While I didn’t get the job, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive in one particular area: my responses were all incredibly child centred and this was something that had impressed the panel and had really made them think. I was obviously flattered by the positive feedback (I am only human), but it made me think. What responses to questions about education are not child centred?

However you choose to teach in the classroom it will, I think, inevitably be child centred. For a start the maths are against you. There will always be more children in the room than there are you, or other adults (at least in mainstream education). Therefore what happens in the room is always going to be about the students and if they feel it isn’t, then they will make it so. However you choose to teach, it will be about the students in the room. But, the classroom wasn’t what was being talked about in this interview, it was a much wider ranging pastoral role. That made me think about the school as an entity. The raison d’etre of schools must surely be students, what else would it be? If we start with this premise, it should inform all of our following actions.

However, schools are long lived beings (in most cases) and just like your grandma only has her cup of tea made a certain way, and only with PG tips (or Typhoo) and silver top milk and one sugar, schools very often operate in a particular way because that is what they have always done. Children who arrive in Year 7 (or afterwards) are very quickly socialised into the school expectations (and if they are not, then they are frequently removed). Socialising students into expected behaviours isn’t in itself a problem, unless you are the problem child (this is probably an issue for another blog), but increasingly the school’s policies can become problematic for those students who are perfectly compliant and who want to achieve. Schools move away from a child centred approach to a school centred approach, and in doing so perhaps they harm both individuals and the school as an entity. For example, time tables. Students select their GCSE subjects after much consultation, information, advice and guidance. They might do this in year 9, they might do this in year 8. This will be dictated by the school. Some students will be told they cannot do particular subjects because they haven’t high enough SAT’s grades, some will be told demand is too great for a particular subject and they must choose another, still more (usually the entire year group) will be told they must pick between subjects: history or geography, Spanish or French. All the time their choices are being denied, some subjects will be forced upon them: everybody must do, D&T for example. The argument for these choices being forced upon students is that their choices must be timetabled according to what is available (staff, rooms). But what if we started with student choices, rather than the timetable blocks? Why should a 13 year old be forced to choose between their love of history and their enjoyment of geography? If they choose history they cannot study geography in an academic context ever again until they are quite grown up. I went to a school where for GCSE’s I had to study English, Maths and Science. I chose to do History, Geography, Religious Studies, Spanish and French. Students who choose what they enjoy and what they feel they are good at then they might be more successful, which is good for them as individuals, good for their teachers, and good for the school as an entity. Time tabling to student needs must be a possibility. After all, the time table is a construct, not an objective way of organising time, and so offering a student peppermint tea instead of PG Tips, might mean they are more likely to drink it.

When a school does decide to change a policy, introduce a new initiative, go to a two week time table then the first question must be, who does this serve best? If not the child, then who? If not the child, then why? (to bastardise Primo Levi)

These kinds of issues clearly go far beyond the individual school, expectations about subject choice and achievement are dictated by government and schools frequently reflect the newest targets and ideologies that have been issued by the DofE. The measurements of school based on Ebac subjects chosen, insisting all children learn to read in a certain way, or use language in a particular way might be examples of some of these ideas. Again the question is, why does the Department of Education exist if it is not child centred? What edicts pass the child centred test? Who else is education for if not the child? It might be argued that education has benefits that go beyond the individual, we need our children to be educated for the successful functioning of society, to enable them to contribute, to support themselves, ultimately to make money. While all these things may currently be true, we are often told that we need to find something we enjoy in order to be successful- “Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for it.”(Katharine Whitehorn). That is the individual child centred approach. Find out what you like doing and choose between all of those options because the system dictates you must is very different.

The school has decided that all the students have to have their tea (PG Tips)with milk and sugar regardless of how the students prefer their tea.


Returning to teacher centred learning

I would describe my classrooms as child centred, if I was pushed. I would go so far as to say I am lazy in the classroom because I don’t feel like I do very much. I change the power point slide, I put students in groups or pairs, hand out questions, sometimes I even ask them, I very rarely answer them with the answer, I frequently tell students ‘I don’t know’, sometimes I don’t even let them talk to each other (silence is golden). My power points contain little information, just a series of instructions that I expect students to read and then follow. I say child centred because it is the students that are working and I am a wanderer, at least that’s how it feels to me most of the time. So why am I there? Because I know how to teach; I have planned that lesson with very specific goals in mind, because students need someone in the room to direct them (even if it is just to the right page in the textbook- I did say lazy).But also because on occasion I need to be standing at the front telling students about the subject, because I know what happens when you remove a child’s right hemisphere and the resultant effects on their learning, I can tell them what happens during brain surgery, the difference between sticky and non-sticky brain tumours, what we mean by being fruit aphasic, how to do a sigh test. But mostly my work happens outside of the room in the planning, preparation, reading, marking, and all the paperwork. That is, the bit that feels like work anyway.

Recently in the twittersphere there seems to have been a swing back towards teacher centred ideas about education (from my brief forays into the world of twitter). The pendulum has swung back again from student led learning, group work and student leaders, to teachers being central in the classroom, and to any learning that happens. Perhaps this is a response to the battering the profession has received politically- actually we are important, we might be one person in the room but we control that room, sometimes with an iron fist, sometimes with a velvet glove and sometimes just with the LoLz. Without a qualified teacher, planning, directing and reflecting on what happens in the classroom, students will rarely get anything out of the lesson (see what happens when I leave my year 12’s work to do if I am absent vs. what happens when I am in the room).

I think this swing is an important one. It is difficult to argue that teachers are important when the profession itself was removing the word teaching from what it does. It is no longer teaching and learning, it is learning and teaching; you will no longer be judged on what you do in the room, rather you will be judged on the progress made by each student in the room at that time; I am a facilitator is very different to I am a teacher; students lead the learning is very different to teachers direct the learning. Perhaps by doing this we made it seem abundantly clear that teaching isn’t a profession with experts in their field practising every day, but more of a sales pitch to the people in the room to engage with the learning as they saw fit. In which case, why would we need to be qualified? After all, the students are leading the learning, making the rules and teaching each other. They are even marking their own work, or the work of their peers developing their own learning and that of others. Why, then, do we need an expert in pedagogy in the room? We simply need an administrator to put students in groups and remind them occasionally that they need to go and look at another student’s work.

We owe it to ourselves and our colleagues to acknowledge our own importance and value in the classroom, in the corridor and in the pastoral meetings we have with students. Teachers are professional educators, and we need to take that mantle back, and wear it with pride. We need to remember that students need professionals in the room if they are to succeed, people who know what they are doing and reflect on how to do it better. A teacher centred school is one that enables teachers to do the best for their students because it enables good teaching. It tells the world that teaching is important.

What teacher centred is not:

  • An easy life for teachers;
  • Doing what you have always done;
  • Working 9am til 3.30pm (despite what people I meet out and about seem to think);
  • Coasting (although I hesitate to use the word);
  • Cynical and self-serving.

What teacher centred learning is:

  • The best for children.

Next blog: on being child centred.

With thanks to Tom Sherrington:



I am a teacher

If you have looked at my blog, you will see it is mostly about food. That is because I like food, a lot. I do like teaching to, but I haven’t blogged about teaching. Until now. It is my job and I am exceedingly lucky to share an office with amazing colleagues with whom I can discuss my concerns, frustrations, and even those moments where you feel like something good has really happened, whether in the classroom or just a passing comment or occurrence in the corridor. Perhaps this is why I don’t use the medium of blogging to record or analyse my thoughts because they are writ large every day.

But that may be changing. I still have my colleagues with whom I can reflect, and discuss and argue. They challenge me and make me think, but perhaps I need to spend more time in self-reflection, or even (and this is risky) gaining a wider view of what I think. There is always the danger of working closely with people that you hear back what you want to hear. So, there are things that are on my mind that I might be blogging about, inconsistent as those thoughts might be. I am not promising coherence.

I have been a head of department, a pastoral lead (in a minor way). I trained just over ten years ago as a Religious Studies teacher, but swerved into teaching psychology accidentally, and I now teach psychology and sociology A-levels, and a little key stage3 religious studies (for the first time since 2007). I no longer have any management responsibility and I have just returned from a 12 month sabbatical, which I used to travel the world with a brief foray into the world of teaching English as a foreign language.

And now here I am pondering the profession I have rejoined.