Monday, 28 November 2016

Considering Criticism: how my poor lesson observation made me a better teacher.

Sometimes we have really bad days, we question if we are doing the right thing and we often think about what else we would do instead. Teacher retention is a massive issue within the UK, so much so that the government are looking at funding options for recruiting and keeping graduates who choose to teach Maths, English or a Science. Teaching as a profession does not get a lot of praise, from parents, other professionals or from government, meaning that there will be a continual problem to recruit and keep some of the UK's top teachers.

Where do we go from here? How do we keep people in the profession and also keep them happy? Within FE English and Maths, teachers have to tackle the massive issue of encouraging students to complete qualifications that have been attempted once before. For a lot of teachers, this could mean that students are disruptive, uneasy or generally unwilling to co-operate with you and your lesson on anything with letters or numbers. How do we tackle what seem like constant problems against what feels like a never ending cycle of negativity?

Keep fighting for success, failure isn't an option (Courtesy of

As a teacher myself, it is so easy to admit that nothing can be done, complain about student behaviour or run yourself down before you head home. I encourage you to think differently in order to preserve your own mental health and keep you loving the job you work so hard in. You are in a tough position and many have tried and failed before you, the thing that you will need to consider is, how do you take personal criticism and constant feeling of failure.

I have my own story, in my first year of teaching, I had a group that did not co-operate. I was frustrated with the group as they didn't want to learn, constant behaviour problems mixed with all the students taking a complete dislike to me. I got observed within this group and ended up doing very poorly, I spoke to my line manager at the time and I was angry and frustrated, I vented to some of the other staff I work with about the issues I had with the group and how it was all the students fault I did so poorly, I blamed everyone but myself. I went home in a huff, thinking of a way out, thinking I was not good enough to do this job. The thought of going back in, everyone will question me, everyone will think I am a fraud. I'm not cut out for this.

That evening I sat down, thought about it all and spoke to my friends. I told them how I was feeling and what I thought I wanted to do, leave. My reason was not because I wasn't qualified enough, but I felt like I was failing the students I was working with and coming up with poor ideas. It took a while but I realised that my perspective was all wrong, this was my worst group, this was not a personal attack but a lifeline for me to get this group back on track. This was a way for me to work with other staff and help my students get through their maths exams. I sent my line manager an email at 8pm that evening stating that I appreciated his feedback and I wanted to work on the things he commented on within the observation, I said I wanted to work on different approaches to the group to help me within the classroom I had. I felt instantly better, I was being positive about my own shortcoming, identifying your weaknesses in yourself makes you more likely to improve on them.

Who knew that would work? Instead of questioning myself and what I was doing wrong, I thought of what I was doing right. My lesson content improved massively and my behaviour within the classroom became more relaxed and encouraging. I realised that this was not a personal attack on my lack of experience or my competency as a teacher, but it was a wake up call, I knew if I was told I was outstanding I wouldn't have been happy with that either. I am a teacher and I have the confidence to know I am also a competent one, I know what I am doing and I know how to interact with my students. We all have areas we can improve on, and I saw this as a new challenge.

The way I responded to this affected how I feel about the future from here on out. I don't consider myself as a bad teacher, I know I work hard to get things done and work in the best interests of my students. I realised that this negative experience within my role shaped how I handled future events like this, I knew that I could have easily given up, but I know I am stronger than this and knew I could change. Ask this of yourself, if you receive some bad news, or a lesson goes horribly wrong, become objective and remove yourself from it. If there was a camera in the room, what do you think you would do differently? How do you think you would behave and what would you like to see in your own video? I thought about my own mental video from that observation, and this inspired me to work on the issues that I perceived myself. I realised the next year that my change was successful when a previous student from that group told me that she felt I was a better teacher and my lessons were much more enjoyable.

I want you to think about perspective today, your perspective shapes everything that happens to you as a teacher, if you perceive the bad group, you will subconsciously treat them differently. If you perceive yourself as a failure, you will more than likely look for opportunities to back up your hypothesis. I ask you to remember that you do this because you do care, you are competent and you are the change that may help some of your students achieve their English and Maths qualifications. You are more than a lesson observation, a pair of hands or a number. Consider this before you jump ship and try something new, think about what you can do differently and always question yourself for opportunities to develop your approach. You are not going to fail if you are always looking for ways to improve. The big lesson I learnt from this experience is to perceive criticism as a way to improve what you are doing, treat constructive criticism as a new lease of life to any problem areas and use this to shape your own development. Tackle problems with solutions, you'll feel better, healthier and earn more respect from other staff and students alike.

- Matt

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The key to Monday happiness, the weekend!

A lot of times, Monday mornings are the worst days that most professionals go through in their working week. How did the weekend leave us so fast? There was so much I had to do! How did I not manage to see my family? All these questions, feelings of regret and unease at the week ahead. This unease doesn't get easier for teachers, who may be planning lessons over the weekend and doing more work on top of their already full on job itself. Marking is a bane of a teacher's life, but I will address this in a separate blog post.

So where are we at now? It's a Saturday evening and I am sat here feeling content in the fact I have done the majority of the stuff I wanted to do over the weekend, and all done without a hangover. As I referred to in a previous post regarding work life balance (Post), the key to success for the weekend is how you prepare yourself for the week ahead and properly relax in time for that Monday morning alarm clock!

I was desperate to do a few things before this weekend was over, these things were to update this blog, contact my parents, get my haircut and also do something lavish for myself, I've done those things and it's not even 6pm on Saturday, it means I can relax a bit more until tomorrow where I will look over my lessons in preparation for the next week. I don't feel unhappy or stressed at the thought of planning my lessons, I accept that they will get done and I am content that I am prepared for the work that this will ensue.

One of my biggest tips is sleep, make sure you catch up on any sleep and prepare yourself for your morning routine this week. Sleep also greatly increases our active thinking, affects how positive we feel and how likely we are to perceive stress at different times. The way to do this is to ensure you don't set yourself an alarm over the weekend. If you do have to get up at a certain time, then go to bed 8 hours prior. Our bodies sleep in cycles of 1.5 hours at a time, in those intervals, we are at our lightest stage of sleep, so for you maths people out there every 1.5, 3, 4.5, 6, 7.5 and 9 hours your body would naturally wake up if slightly disturbed, it's also why you may feel really groggy if you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle. One application I would recommend attempts to find your body's natural rhythm and wake you up when you are at your lightest stage, search "sleep cycle" in the application store on your phone for options and see if you find any success with them. There is sense to the principle that you can wake up on the wrong side of the bed!

It's very easy to stress too much about different things we have to get done, I've tried a new practice, I plan out my week on a Sunday evening. This plan has all my commitments, plans for when I am going to exercise, write my blog, work, see my parents and other commitments (including writing my best man's speech for my friends wedding). I start by writing down everything I need to cover in the next week (pay this bill, see this friend, book tickets etc), then I order the things I need to do in priority. I prioritise my most important things, such as family, friends, blog and exercise. I then try to fit that around work as much as possible. I know that we all need downtime, that's timetabled too in my week and at the weekend. Getting into a positive habit and routine takes a lot of the mental strain out of preparing yourself for the week. I don't worry about my lessons for the week now, I've planned time on Sunday evening to peruse my plans for the week. Mention in the comments if you would like me to expand on this topic. Try it for yourself!

I also love to see my parents every weekend, without fail. They only live in the same town as me but I feel it's important to connect with those closest to you, as mentioned in my previous blog post, family and relationships are paramount in helping you feel de-stressed, relaxed and generally all-together in preparation for your week ahead. It's funny when I was with my parents this weekend, we sat and watched some old family movies. My dad said to me "Life was easier then wasn't it" as I watched one year old me blow out the candles on my Humpty Dumpty birthday cake. Yes dad, it was, but in that moment nothing else crossed my mind other than how much I valued my family, it was great.

Just make sure you leave enough time to wash your clothes for Monday! Happy weekend everybody!

P.s. I've added a follow button on the top right of this page if you want to be kept updated when I next post, let's build the community one follower at a time!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Don't you know? The kid's are alright!

Another eye opener today with regards to the teaching within my maths classroom, remarkable what activities work and what doesn't work so well but the main thing is that every experience improves us as lecturers and teachers within this FE minefield!

A fact we always forget when we are delivering to the students within compulsory English and Maths is that they are giving it another go, we've all been deflated over not receiving news we don't want to hear however for some of the students we work with, this may be a fresh start on a subject which they had lost hope in. The amount of students who require extra arrangements for exams is staggering, a lengthy referral process ensures that students who are struggling get seen, assessed and then awarded different arrangements from the examining body.

One of the striking moments within teaching today was helping a problem learner through some maths work, a learner who I thought would not achieve surprised me and completed work of a very good standard, we are getting somewhere! We are making progress towards the goal, what goal that is becomes subjective to the students you know within your classroom and what you view as a step forward in their motivation, achievement and learning. This is what I am going to talk about today, how do we define success within the FE classroom and how do we measure progress from the starting point, we have tunnel vision regarding our learners however I am here to open up the box and make you aware of the little victories you all experience day to day.

When we get our learners at the start of the year, they are apprehensive, don't want to be there, have their own stories and experiences that we are unaware of. The big issue here, it's a guessing game to identify which learners belong in which category. Some of our students are not able to read correctly and struggle with basic life skills in the classroom, some have such terrible experiences within education that the thought of coming along to their functional skills classrooms sends them into a wild frenzy. We often forget this when we have 16 learners and 4 of them become disruptive during a lesson, however we need to be more subjective and student centred to move forward and keep our heads in this ever changing system.

We make it a habit of talking about the general student group. Statements like "the kids are on one today" and "they are all behaving terribly" sometimes becomes defeatist about the role we are in. I want you to practice something, for every negative you say regarding a student's attitude or behaviour, consider the small victories, did a student perform better than expected? Did a student impress you with their knowledge? Did they thank you for the lesson at the end of the day? I always make it a practice to thank my students and tell them to enjoy the rest of their day, a positive message to leave our learners with and show that you do care about each and every one of them.

Dale Carnegie wrote a book called "How to win friends and influence people" in 1936 but a lot of the lessons within it are still prevalent today, especially within the role of education. Dale Carnegie suggests that we should always try to give honest and sincere appreciation, appreciate your students for the effort they made in getting to your classroom and the work they completed. This rule applies to all the staff that you work with in a support capacity, thank your learning support and teaching assistants within your classes as well as the administrators that make your life easier day to day. The more you appreciate the students and staff around you, the easier your life becomes. Richard Branson once said that "employees come first, if you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients", let's remember this in day to day workings with our staff and our students, use this message to inspire us to keep going week in week out, lesson by lesson and day to day.

For every negative, try to find a positive in your classroom

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Addressing your work-life balance; Practical tips (part one)

How much value do you put on your work/life balance? Where has the importance been in terms of ensuring that not only do you work hard but also take time to ensure that your own personal and emotional needs are met? Many articles have surfaced on the internet about the problems faced by teachers regarding recruitment, retention and work-life balance. This is especially prevalent within the FE environment where classroom sizes are increasing and more students require English or Maths at C grade.

What I am going to talk about today is the responsibility of getting your work-life balance in order to effectively perform not only as a teacher, but in all aspects of your life. Please don't take this as patronising, but I will try to elaborate on how I prepare myself for the days and weeks ahead in my working life. I am going to share the secrets to my own personal reflective process so I do not succumb to the day-to-day frustrations of FE teaching and run myself down as the week progresses on.

I discussed with my colleagues today about how they work and what they do outside of their own lives, it's difficult when you have so many other commitments from children, family members, friends and others to make time for yourself. One thing I do is ensure that I make time for something I truly enjoy doing. Last weekend I went to Costa Coffee and had a latte with something to eat, it was my own time to reflect and be happy with my own thoughts and feelings, it's funny how we enjoy ourselves when we are left in our own company just to dream away the time. My first piece of advice is to do something for yourself at least once a week. Maybe you want to go to the cinema with a significant other, have a meal out at the weekend, if you have children then what about going for a refreshing walk in the sunshine (providing the weather is good!). 

The practice of mindfulness (essentially living in the present reality) is becoming more commonplace within work, allow yourself time to reflect on the day's activities (my blog works really well for myself) and consider what events happened and how they make you feel. Question your own feelings and emotions in an objective way to help you restore clarity in your own judgement and reasoning. This brings me onto my next avenue for success, spirituality. I am Agnostic however many colleagues I have worked with in the past have strong religious beliefs, make time for your own spirituality and teachings to feel some faith in yourself again. If you are non-religious, meditation is really good for making you feel present and in the moment, calm breathing and relaxing ensure that you feel more control in yourself rather than how the outside world affects your feelings.

I went to see my sister at the weekend, she has a little girl who has just turned two years old, I had a great three hours playing with her and really relaxing with my valued family members. I couldn't believe how grown up she is, how has it been three months since I last saw them? I now reflect on this and want to see them at least once a month, this brings me to another important pillar in my work-life balance, relationships. Always make time for people and fulfil your social need, ensure that you spend time with people you value and care about, this will in turn make you feel relaxed, calm and positive with how you approach your teaching in the future days to come. Happiness is infectious, and your happiness even more so.

How does this help you teach anything? Well, the more you address and understand your own needs, the more likely you are to respond to the needs of your students. There is more to anyone than meets the eye and the students may not be able to spend time with the people in their lives they care about. You cannot change what is happening in your student's lives, however as they learn and develop into young adults, they may look to you for guidance and support. Support your students by supporting your own needs and wishes first. Make yourself and your health a priority again so you can be effective within the classroom and perform positively in work and life.

I am hoping to expand on this even further for teachers within FE, so please follow the updates to find out when I will be discussing this in another future post. Bye for now!


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Classroom Management in the FE Classroom; Fun, boring or leave.

How do we tackle consistently poor student behavior in our classrooms? How do we pick our battles and be on the winning side? What students want to leave and what students are always just going to cause you grief? Most importantly, are you going to let student behavior drive you out of your job?

Today was a real eye-opener to the feeling of resentment that teachers feel about poor student behavior. Why are we here? Who is to blame? Is this fair? Although some see this role as glorified babysitting, I believe that the value we give our learners in a further education environment outweighs their need to go to work straight out of school. The current system is not a perfect one, however if we constantly consider the faults, we don't give ourselves time to praise the students who do excel and perform to the best of their ability.

I tried something new in class today, frustrated with my lessons and poor behavior from a particular group in the morning, I said to them, "Right, I have three options for you, we have a really great activity planned today so you can take part in that and we can have a really good lesson, alternatively you can work through a worksheet I have which isn't anywhere near as fun. the other option is the door, you leave and get reported to your tutor". The main thing here is, I described a lesson as fun? Use positive language to describe the work you are going to do, don't downplay your time and effort, be genuinely enthused about what you are going to teach in the next hour.

I tried it with another group, most were happy to get on, and some actually opted for the worksheet, I realized something remarkable, even my worst behaved students who opted for the worksheets thinking it was less work than the activity completed the whole thing in this time. That's more work than they've done in the last week! I will be sure to develop this approach more going forward and recommend you try it out for yourself. The thinking behind this is simple, if you are expecting adult behavior, treat your students like adults, it's surprising what a little choice will do to make your students views feel valued and encourage them to complete their own tasks.

I've been working hard on implementing behavior approaches in how I speak to students in this way. Think about a really bad argument you've been in with a student, it's never fun, but think about how you could have approached this differently, my first piece of advice is never raise your voice or sound angry, they have won if they can see they've gotten to you. My second piece of advice is be overly nice with your students, encourage them, help them with their work and tell them how sorry they are that they feel that way about your Maths/English lessons. This approach makes the student appear irrational, it's almost like dealing with a bad customer, apart from if you were selling them a mobile phone, they probably wouldn't be as rude.

The final thing, is mobile phones. The bane of any FE teacher's life. Mobile phones do so much and are so capable of being brilliant resources in your classroom, your Senior Management would encourage you to use phones where possible to embed some technology within your classroom. Mr OFSTED probably agrees with that theory. Within compulsory English and Maths, I encourage you to be strict on mobile phone use within the classroom, i.e. no phones on tables, on loud or in hands. How you tackle these issues is again as adults, ask your learner if they feel that this is a valid use of their time. If you get a sarcastic answer, remind them about behaving like adults (rudeness should not be tolerated within your classroom either) and ask them to put it away. At this point most comply, if there is nothing, another simple choice. Put it at the front of the room, or leave. Most choose the former, no great loss if they choose the latter, You're always going to be less interesting than a cat video.

How you choose to tackle these issues in your classroom are completely up to you, I would encourage you to think about your own teaching style and how you function within a classroom before you change too much about your lessons. I would also encourage you to bring change in gradually. Small changes are extremely effective and could be the difference between you finishing class with a smile on your face, or in tears.

Value your students, value your profession, value your time and effort and most importantly, value yourself

Monday, 21 November 2016

How to combat stress in an FE Classroom

Today was a refreshing teaching day, I felt on top of my lessons, out the door early preparing some new resources and planning the week ahead. Teaching Maths in Further Education (FE) on a monday gives you a feeling of anxiety before you enter the classroom (are the students alright, are they going to behave, is your resource going to work) and excitement from feeling fresh from a relaxed but restful weekend. One of my future blog posts is going to talk about how to turn off at the weekend for FE staff as this for me is extremely important in keeping myself mentally ready for the week ahead.

One of the biggest problems within FE is stress, knowing the symptoms, when people have reached the end, and when to consider other options. There is nothing worse than feeling trapped in an occupation you no longer enjoy (I've been there in other occupations) and I would hate to think that people enter the profession purely for monetary reasons.

Ask yourself one question "Why did you want to become a teacher?"

Do you want to help people? Do you want to shape minds? Maybe you like a challenge? Whatever your reasoning, your motivation for this job probably isn't, I want to feel worthless and upset over young adults not learning about areas and perimeters. I want you to consider that every job in the world has it's ups and downs, there are bad days and good days much like life. I don't personally believe that there is a job that someone is 100% happy in, if someone tells you they are, they are lying to you.

I've seen many staff members leave over my relatively short tenure at my FE college (nearly 2 years), which should, by now, be considered long service award worthy. This is due to problems with students, different job expectations, work demands, marking expectations all underpinned by one word; stress. How do we cope with stress in this role? Are we doomed to be stressed our entire teaching career and is it something we have to accept?

The answer is no.

I believe that there are ways to combat stress, deal with problems head on and keep your head above water. Most jobs involve a form of stress, a little stress actually makes you perform better in some scenarios, but it is given considering the current education climate and demand for results that you will inevitably have to deal with stress. I am going to share some ideas on how to cope with stress for you to become more effective and not dread your day going into work.

The first thing you need is a solid support group, look around your staff room and consider who you are happy to talk to, what do you talk about? Is it always professional? Do you really know the people in your staffroom or office? The best thing to do is invest time in learning about others, you gave a reason why you wanted to teach earlier so practice those skills here, learn to listen actively and respond appropriately to other people you work with. I make it a practice to try to talk to everyone in my staffroom to make sure they are alright in one day, try it for yourself and see if you feel more connected to your colleagues. When you are genuinely interested in their own lives, dreams and ambitions, they will become genuinely interested in yours too, we teach our students to be caring and considerate adults so let's be the perfect role models.

Another suggestion, change the dialogue in your day to day teaching. Jimmy may not be getting a piece of work and you are certain that he is not going to achieve this year, what does Jimmy think about? What is important to him within your lessons? Maybe Jimmy loves coming to college because he gets to socialise with his friends and practice his skills in cookery, does it make him a bad person for not achieving a learning objective you've set for him? There is a reason he is retaking this subject, there is a reason he may want to talk to his friends instead of complete the worksheet you've set for him, show him that you think differently. Change reprimand for positive language and positive outcomes.

A prime example happened today in my first lesson, I had a student who told me that she thought maths was rubbish (not the exact terminology used) and didn't see why she had to do it to get a job. I asked her instead to think about what skills could be learned from attending the lessons and how she could apply them to real life. It wasn't that I was telling her off, I was encouraging her to think like an adult. She saw that I genuinely cared about how she was progressing instead of getting defensive about the subject, this meant that she not only completed the work, she thanked me when she left the room after the lesson finished. Mutual respect between your students and yourself is a powerful thing. Please and Thank you's to your students cost nothing. Do you think she thinks about this altercation after she left the room? She won't, will you?

Please let me know in the comments what you do to actively destress, what would you do in your classroom and how do you cope with the day-to-day demands of the jobs? Many thanks for reading this blog post and I hope to see you all soon.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Why of Maths?

"Why do we have to do this?"
"Why can't we do something fun?"
"It doesn't matter, I can still get a job without maths"
"I can't be bothered"

Amongst other excuses that your students will have told you about their future in completing their maths qualifications in further education. Today, I am going to talk about the why of maths, how to make it more tangible to students and how to change the maths schema.

For the most part, maths is symbolic of a students failure. Having to attend more maths lessons feels like they are stupid, worthless, can't do it or they are going to have to change their dreams and career options. This is not the case for our students, however I will talk about this in another blog entry.

Picture the scene, you've studied Maths for 11 years and then get told that you don't meet a required standard. For some of our students, a "D" grade is a very good achievement from where they were several years ago, however our system tells them to improve. The natural reaction is distress, they don't know how to progress further on from this and are unsure what this means for their futures. Blame sets in, they blame their teachers, they blame the subject, they blame the other students for being so distracting within lessons and potentially their parents for not helping them with their homework in year 9. What I am going to encourage you to do is change the dialogue within your classroom to help your students and make them see that this goal is achievable using some simple language and easy to understand concepts.

The majority of your students are going to be 16+, a big priority for these students is their independence. When they enter an FE environment, we encourage them to think, behave and work as adults. Part of the development of these learners is for them to pass their driving test. Let's get our students to think about this, to start, ask your students:
"What would you do if you failed your driving test first time?"
The natural response here would not be to give up, but to just try it again next time, to give it another go, to achieve because it's what they are motivated to do. Why should this change because it's Maths? The truth is, it shouldn't, you just have to help your students see that for themselves.

Maths itself is a set of skills learnt over time, it takes time, practice, lessons and eventually a test at the end. Sound's quite similar to preparing for a driving test right? Encourage your students to consider maths as a set of skills instead of a new subject that they will need to practice. Change the language in your classroom to reflect this; encourage your students to consider the "skills" they are learning rather than going through the motions of mathematic principles. Maths tests are about being competent in skills regarding maths, akin to a driving test, we wouldn't let everyone pass otherwise we would have a whole heap of issues.

Why do your students have to do Maths? Because Maths provides them with a skill-set needed to tackle problems in the workplace as well as in their own lives. A solid foundation in Maths will open doors for our students and provide them with more opportunities within work and life, we may know this, but maybe they don't yet. It might be the same effect that being able to drive and not driving would be to their career prospects. Consider your students motivations and relate to something tangible to allow your students to reflect on their own attitudes to maths.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

An Introduction to FE Maths Guidebook

Welcome to my new blog, here I am going to talk about all things Maths, current issues regarding the education system regarding compulsory English and Maths as well as some remedies.

As a current teacher working in the FE sector, I feel passionately about the teaching and education of students who are willing to retake their GCSE Maths again. I mainly focus on Functional Skills Maths, a perceived step-up qualification, which gives students some grounding skills within Maths before they reattempt their GCSE Maths. This qualification is mainly for students who achieve less than a D grade within their first attempt at GCSE Maths, the goal is to give students confidence within their own mathematics skills before reattempting a GCSE again.

So what are the issues, the number one has to be the student groups. Student groups are a mix of abilities, levels and also attitudes towards Mathematics. You have to differentiate effectively in order to get the best out of each student within each classroom as well as identify students who struggle, students who don't want to do it and students who perceive themselves as failures for not achieving their Maths at school.

As this blog develops, I will be drawing on student groups, as well as best practice for delivery of FS Maths and GCSE Maths for these student groups. I believe students can be categorised based on their need and different provision should be given to each of them which I will cover in a future post. I also believe that certain methods work well with retaking students for their Maths and I will be sure to provide examples of my time within my teaching days to reflect on how to improve for the future.

Whether you are a fellow college lecturer struggling to deliver these qualifications, a manager looking for different ways to help support your colleagues or a workbased provider considering different options supporting your student in gaining their magical "C" grade in Maths (or a 4/5 next year). I hope you find something within this blog that will be of use to you.

Many thanks, and happy reading