Let that be a lesson by Ryan Wilson

A pleasant and heartfelt account of one man’s brief journey into and out of education, Let That Be a Lesson left me feeling sad that our profession is failing to hang on to teachers like Wilson. By his own account in this book, he was frantic to enter the profession from childhood, yet he rocketed through the ranks and out the other side in a frenzied haze of marking and accountability.

From teachers behaving badly to students’ frankly mind-boggling misconceptions, Wilson’s memoir is unquestionably funny. In fact, it’s worth reading just for his hilarious anecdote about inadvertently cupping the headteacher’s wife’s breast. But while that’s a pretty unique situation to end up in (I assume), there is much that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in their local comprehensive. From inadequate training through to achieving local celebrity status, Wilson’s observational humour takes in the gold bullion-equivalent value of glue-sticks, agonising ‘wellbeing’ sessions, speed dating-style parents’ evenings, wasps in the classroom and a kid making you an offer you (almost) can’t refuse of some knock-off DVDs.

Yet for all that there is personal pain in Wilson’s journey. The loss of a much-respected colleague and very close friend to cancer clearly had a profound effect on his feelings about the job, and perhaps his conviction that life is too short to spend it strapped to a desk laden with exercise books.

Wilson also charts his own personal coming-out story. But that comes through as something of a gift in terms of his experience in education. He explains how he found inspiration in the openness of some of the youngsters he met and how this gave him the confidence to embrace his own sexuality.

Wilson does not attribute any of his growing disenchantment with the profession to the students; yet he does catalogue plenty of poor behaviour – what he refers to as “fights, bullying and general thuggery”. In my opinion, that our system somehow persuades someone like Wilson that putting up with this as an inevitable part of the job is an indictment. His positivity about young people is laudable, but would we still count him in our ranks if he’d been trained – and supported – to take a different approach?

Wilson’s journey is also a salutary lesson about early promotion. He seems at every point in his career to have been put under too much pressure, and not simply from excessive workload or accountability. During his first weeks in training, he was left unsupervised with difficult classes; he was asked to teach texts he hadn’t had time to read, let alone study; just five years later, he was in charge of a department of 18 people in an unfamiliar setting as head of English in an inner-city school. Beyond that lay senior leadership. Each moment in his career left me with the feeling that in the long-term this was never going to work.

Although the book reads like a series of anecdotes, divided into chapters with headings rather than numbers, there is a story arc here, and it is Wilson’s own alarmingly rapid trajectory from idealistic newbie to jaded senior leader. He explores some frankly corrosive thinking, culminating in a thoroughly depressing conversation with another senior leader who agreed that the school should hold a minute’s silence for the victims of a terrorist attack on the grounds that “Ofsted like that kind of thing”.

Wilson’s anger is palpable. And to an extent it’s rightly political, too. But ultimately the politicisation of his message is something of a disappointment. His stance that ‘The Two Michaels’, Gove and Wilshaw, have wreaked untold havoc upon our education system is simplistic to the point of naivety. It dates the book, and left me feeling somewhat dejected. The notion that those dastardly villains, the Tories, were behind it all along feels like a Scooby Doo-level analysis for what is otherwise a poignant and very personal account.

Surely a more useful lesson could have been drawn – for us and for Wilson alike.

Let That Be a Lesson: 'A frank, funny and long overdue ode to teachers and  teaching' Adam Kay: Amazon.co.uk: Wilson, Ryan: 9781784744014: Books

This post was originally published in Schools Week magazine.

For the Love of Kindle

On holiday once, I was berated by an elderly Yorkshireman for “staring int’ computer again.” It took some considerable explanation to convince him that I was in fact reading a book and even when convinced, he shook his head in disapproval. His supposed reasoning was about the “feel” of a book, and it was irrational but not unusual. The fact that books feel and smell like what they are – ink on paper – seems to be the core reason why many people reject eReaders. Now, I have no wish to berate anyone for partaking in sensual pleasure – good luck to you! But if you are so inclined, why not just keep a small handful of books for sniffing and feeling? You don’t need hundreds.

I clung to the notion myself for a while. My first eReader, a Sony, was beautiful but felt strange. In the end, the hassle of plugging it into a computer and remembering how to download things proved to be too much of a challenge. I am a lazy technophile and I expect my gadgets to do everything for me in the style of ’70s futuristic Sci Fi. But lo, then the Kindle appeared. Wireless. Instantaneous. Scarily easy to spend on. And I saw that it was good.

How anyone that claims to “love books” can be suspicious of these little devices amazes me. As a child I had numerous book-related fantasies, and I’m not talking about the book-smelling that I mentioned earlier; I mean the heady fantasies of a child who spends most of her waking hours living and breathing the narrative of her current favourite story. One of my abiding fantasies was to be able to open up my hand and summon a book of my choice in an instant. With the Kindle, my fantasy became a reality and now I feel like a child again. The only question is – what the hell do I do with all those old paperbacks?

I mentioned to my late father-in-law that I was culling my book collection and his reaction was one of horror: “I couldn’t possibly get rid of a book!” he thundered, as if my recent decision to donate around half of my ludicrously large collection to charity were an outrage to Jehovah. Not that I ever actually saw him reading a book, mind you, and by his own admission he tended to sample a small snippet before he got bored and moved onto another. This is something, incidentally, that the Kindle is perfect for; he wouldn’t even have had to leave his chair.

I assumed that I would meet with more rational thinking at work, but yet more irrationalism greeted my pragmatic remarks on space and the relative likelihood of me ever actually getting round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. (I mean … really?! Where did I even get it?!) Most of the romantics that I work with are considerably younger than I am and yet they speak in the same terms as the elderly Yorkshireman and my father-in-law. (God help us). More mumblings about smells and the rustling of paper, more lofty claims about how wonderful it is to live surrounded by a myriad of book-spines.

Now I wonder how many of these people have had to move in and out of countless college rooms, jobs and houses with a large book collection? I spent eight years in Higher Education, and for some of that time I had to move in and out of my room six times a year. When I moved into lodgings near my first place of work, I was given a month’s notice in the first few weeks. Flat shares followed and a good deal of further moving before I even began to settle down. Then I met my husband and moved again, twice in one year. Since moving to our current home I have moved my books on and off temporary shelves and up and down stairs ad nauseam, as we progress through a decorating process that will probably never finish.

And by the time you have moved hundreds of books hundreds of times, trust me: you start to resent them. Not their contents, you understand, but their physical presence.

In Stephen Fry’s first novel, The Liar¸ the wonderful Professor Trefusis, a character who lives surrounded by improving volumes in what he calls his “librarinth”, is similarly fed up:

‘Waste of trees. … Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative, the better.’

A wise man, Professor Trefusis, who elsewhere in the novel points out that the physical existence of a book is irrelevant to its intrinsic value:

‘Books are not holy relics. … Words may be my religion, but when it comes to worship, I am very low church. The temples and the graven images are of no interest to me. The superstitious mammetry of a bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying.’

Books are a vessel for learning, a gateway to knowledge or a vehicle that can transport you to another world. They are not of intrinsic value, yet what they bring to those of us that love them is incalculable. For me, anything that speeds up and facilitates that process is a Godsend.

This piece was first published on the Kindle Users’ Forum in 2012.

Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 2

Chapter 2 of Making Every Lesson Count focuses on explanation and starts with an arresting challenge: just how much quality concrete information do students learn from research-based group tasks compared to teacher explanation? This really resonated with me – it’s very easy to be dazzled by the “buzz” that these kinds of lessons commonly used in the Humanities can create in a classroom; as the authors put it, students “have enjoyed the lesson – but how many have learnt anything at a deep level?”

The authors address the inescapable fact that teacher explanation has received a bad press in recent educational theory, as the advice in teacher training has moved consistently away from the “chalk and talk” model. All that guff about being a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage”. Well, you know what? Sometimes the kids need a sage. The authors look closely at the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that teacher-led instruction is actually A Good Thing. They then briefly explore the methodology of how to make your explanations comprehensible and memorable.

Pleasingly, the authors move swiftly onto the importance of building blocks and dispelling misconceptions; they emphasise the key principle that lessons should always build upon prior learning, each building upon the last and addressing problems that may have become apparent in the students’ work.

The authors really put the boot in when it comes to everyone’s favourite sport of “guess what’s inside the teacher’s head”, a game which we’ve all ended up guilty of playing in a desperate bid to keep our lessons interactive and question-based. The truth, of course, is that this is a seriously pointless way of approaching things. Their sound criticisms of this and similar methods has made me reflect again on the Cambridge Latin Course, which is based on the principle that students miraculously work out what’s going on by observing it; anyone that’s tried to teach like this knows that students need a huge amount of guidance to get there and sometimes – frankly – it’s pointless. Just tell them, for God’s sake, before we all lose the will to live.

In their defence of teacher explanation, the authors are never in danger of encouraging a static or dull classroom environment. They advocate storytelling and bringing the classroom to life. They conclude the chapter with some interesting reflections on why teacher explanation has been so overlooked in professional development, as well as a salutary reminder that poor explanations which fail to achieve student engagement will always remain one of the worst ways to teach.

Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 1

My school has asked us to read Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, completing chapter 1 by the start of term. So far, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

I find it hard to recall and distil information without doing something with it, so I have decided to blog as I read.

The first chapter addresses challenge and the fact that “all too often challenge is presented in the context of ‘challenging the most able'” rather than with the mindset that all students should be engaged in “healthy struggle”. This has certainly been my experience; happily, this culture is shifting.

The ludicrous expectations placed on classroom teachers to differentiate for every child are addressed: “we believe that much that is promoted as good differentiation practice is both unmanageable and counterproductive: it is not humanly possible to personalise planning for each and every child, nor, as often suggested, is it possible to create three levels of worksheet for every lesson.”

Hallelujah! We’ve all known this for some time, but it’s jolly nice to read it in a volume that my Senior Leadership Team has advised me to read! The chapter focuses on the value of “sharing excellence” with students as a method of support, modelling and demonstrating to them what excellence looks like. It also states the truth that one can differentiate much more simply by outcome.

The importance of subject knowledge in exposing students to content pitched above or beyond national expectations is emphasised. Pleasingly, the authors strike a balance between championing the importance of rich, challenging curriculum content and the importance of excellent teaching, stating the inescapable truth that “hard content is harder to teach”. The authors talk about “the long haul” and advise that not every lesson should be challenging – for our own sake and for the students.

The chapter is refreshingly practical but it does draw on other research, most notably Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset and work done by The Sutton Trust on motivating students through content.

Chapter 1 has been a thought-provoking and pleasurable read; I look forward to the rest of the book!