Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Bringing the learner to the forefront. Does FE differ from secondary education?

Tonight serves as a time for reflection on the year we have had within education. The introduction of the new GCSE's in English and Maths looms over us and everyone is apprehensive about the current structure of these new exams. While schools around the country are gearing up for students to sit these examinations, colleges have yet to adopt this change. Some colleges have opted to join the change and move to these new specifications early in order to gain an extra year of experience delivering these qualifications before the mainstream students who have attempted these exams come onto their further education journey.

Aside from the examination changes, changes to funding in FE have meant that students will be funded on their full time programme providing that colleges can evidence progression within English/Maths depending on the current grades of the students. We also have to consider that students have to stay in education until they are 18 years old, and if they choose to stay further, they have to complete Maths or English qualifications until they are 19 or achieve "C" grades in both (or 4/5 grades, but nobody is really sure which)

So where does this leave further education. Are we becoming more mainstream and compulsory?

As a lecturer at a college, we get a mixture of different student groups, the students all have one thing in common, they have attempted their GCSE at least once before and gained either D grade or lower. Rather than just throwing students into their GCSE again regardless of grading, we also have functional skills qualifications (which is an adult numeracy qualification in problem solving using contextual information to complete maths based problems). Does this make it easier for our students who achieve less than a D grade in GCSE Maths? I personally think if we can provide skills for maths exams and learning, then we are doing a service to our learners who otherwise will be leaving college without any formal maths qualification whatsoever.

One of the common questions I get from students is "why do I need to do Maths?", a lot of the time I work with students on comprehending their maths learning and considering how this could apply within their future life. Does this mean everything they learn they use in the future, well, it depends on their occupation choice but generally speaking students will not use as much as they will need to learn in their maths qualifications. Does this mean that we have lost them altogether in their maths learning, why learn it if there is no need?

Consider this problem, two candidates go for an apprenticeship in construction, both are equally competent within this field and are able to apply themselves within their construction skills, however one has a C grade in Maths and the other doesn't, one is judged as more competent than the other. In our teaching of maths to these learners, be sure to stress that you are helping them become more employable rather than being good at maths. The truth is, not many of your students are looking to become maths teachers, nor are they looking to complete further mathematics education, be sure to speak directly to the students motivation and interests in addressing the issues surrounding their compulsory English and Maths education.

It's funny when I speak to students about jobs, some are happy doing any job they want but ultimately they all want opportunity in the future. Some students will also work part-time, prioritise their driving lessons and have other personal problems to contend with outside of your maths lesson. Consider the individual motivations when trying to encourage your students to continue and complete their maths qualifications and bring attention to that. You do not need to be the best maths teacher in the world to teach FE students maths, you just have to be able to relate to the problems that students compete with in their day-to-day lives and show genuine admiration and interest in them. Some of the students I talk to about their English and Maths sessions say they enjoy their lessons in these subjects because they feel valued in the classroom not because they want to necessarily study your subject (one student made me a "best maths teacher" sticker which was very sweet) .

Take away the professionalism, and be yourself in front of your students. I encourage you to think about how you can relate to your students more, not because you want them to think about how they can relate your subject to what they do day-to-day but because you are considering the holistic wellbeing of the students in front of you. They don't need to be maths geniuses to get the maths exams, or a classic poet to understand the meaning gained from a text of information, however they need to consider what they want to do with their lives and make independent, adult decisions regarding their own futures. Does a student who gets frustrated feel frustrated with you personally? Rarely, so let's not make it a personal attack either. Remember, there is more to someone than meets the eye, just dig a little deeper and put the learner at the forefront of everything you do within your further education lessons, does this approach really differ much from school? Not at all.

Monday, 19 December 2016

An introduction to Improving attendance, positivity and learning within the FE Classroom.

Happy holidays readers! Another year is coming closer to an end and most teaching staff are getting a well-earned break. Congratulate yourselves, your colleagues, your teams and your students for bringing a hopefully rather quiet and relaxing end to this term.

Today's blog is all about the learner, the main reason we all do what we do. The learner is without a doubt the reason you are in your job, the majority of people chose to teach because they love working with and helping others, a sentiment that I definitely share especially when I write this blog. I sometimes think of what to blog about and then eventually the words come out, shaped from my experiences within the classroom as well as the events that have unfolded as the weeks have gone on.

Your learner's wishes, wants and motivations play a pivotal role in how you cope with English and Maths within FE. These learners have attempted your subject before and for those who don't experience this teaching, it is fair to say around 10% of your students will be genuinely interested in what you are delivering. The majority of your students are there because they have to be, or because they are forced to improve their own skills for their course. Nearly all your learners will be taking another vocational qualification such as Hair, Construction, Engineering, Catering amongst many other options available at your local institution. Equally more frustrating, some of these learners do not even want to complete this qualification, making your job as a Maths lecturer in this field even more difficult. This means we have to seriously consider learner motivation in order to improve attendance, attitude and the classroom culture within FE Maths and English classes.

What motivates people to do well? Praise by others is a strong influencer in how your students feel about their GCSEs and I would highly recommend ensuring your learners feel valued and safe before attempting to deliver any lesson. This is definitely useful if you talk to your learners at the start of the lesson. As I have built on my own practice, I spend the first 15 minutes of my 1 hour lesson completing a starter activity, usually an activity of an exploratory nature on the board involving discussion around a particular topic. One of my biggest reasons is to build rapport with my students, I talk to students about themselves, ensuring I show genuine interest in what they are doing and how they are getting on day to day. This practice for me has been effective, to the point where vocational staff will tell me that learners are enjoying my Maths lessons and perceive me as a good teacher (That's another way to keep your staff motivated and happy).

Motivation is temporary, there is a reason why gyms in the UK often sell loads of memberships in January but then become empty again come the first week of February. As human beings, motivation comes from things that make us feel good about ourselves and then repeating this behaviour to gain that same positive reward. This doesn't even have to be a tangible reward, the reason some people volunteer is the good feeling that a person gets after helping someone who is less fortunate than themselves, this doesn't mean that we can't operate purely on altruism but that we generally find reward from positivity and feeling good about ourselves in what we do.

Motivation itself is also formed from habit, learners have a timetable and the ones who stick to it have already formed the habit of attending your Maths lessons. It is extremely important to make those first few weeks of your maths lessons engaging, exciting and overall pleasant for your learners. Maxwell Maltz in the 1950's suggested that it takes individuals about 21 days to form a new habit, for learners in your classroom, this is the equivalent of the first month of their FE education. Aside from illness, if you can keep your learners engaged and in that classroom for the first part of the term, then the habit has formed and they will attend due to our natural behaviour to habit form, the next thing you need to work on is the positivity in your groups.

Positivity can be generated within your classroom in many ways, the biggest influencer of this is you. Learn to engage with your students on a level they are comfortable with, you should also be aware that not everybody wants to tell you about their personal life. As a rule of thumb, you should know who your learners are within the first month of delivery. I will eventually aim to develop particular questions for you as lecturers to challenge yourselves within this aspect to ensure that you not only communicate effectively with your learners, but you also consider every single person within that classroom as a person rather than another statistic or passing grade.

Another aspect revolves around behaviour management. I prefer to use the term PBM which stands for Positive Behaviour Management, the reason being that our students may have been subject to less than positive experiences in the past, where we have placed them in low sets or have already been labelled within a less than optimal grade boundary. FE Maths teaching is a different game altogether, the learners all have one core objective and none of them differ in this respect. Be sure to challenge behaviour but consider how you do so. I will be featuring examples in a future post.

Overall, I don't compromise on the truth about the role nor do I want to, for any teachers aspiring to teach FE Maths or English, this job is a very tough one, there are good days and some serious lows also. As a teacher of Maths within FE you will question yourself more and more about your work and what you are doing everyday, some people I have worked with see this challenge as a goal and work towards improving standards within their department, others have unfortunately lost hope and have left the occupation altogether. I hope that upon reading this, you take some time to reflect on your own journey as a teacher and question your own motivations, wishes and wants.

I have a question to any teacher out there who is reading this, how do you motivate your learners within your subject? Please comment below or follow me on twitter (@feguidebook) with your suggestions so we can hopefully share some good practice this festive season. Have a fantastic break!

- Matt

Friday, 9 December 2016

Do you perceive this as the most difficult job in Education?

Amongst the tirade of unhappy staff ready for a break, along with unhappy students who are thinking likewise, it is very difficult to see where the satisfaction and job reward is in delivering compulsory English and Maths in Further Education.

This was evident today to me, when students are consistent in questioning why they have to do their maths qualifications. I struggle to tell them that they are a part of a system that makes them complete something that makes them feel stupid, however we have to see the real benefit to the students who try again, and again and again to complete these qualifications.

Within mathematics particularly, students are told very quickly if they are right or wrong. Any person doesn't like being told when they are incorrect in their thinking and often take this as personal criticism. I spoke to my students over the last few days who all struggle with the demands placed on them from their course, their english and their maths classes. Does this mean our students should prioritise us over what they enjoy, over a subject in which they excel compared to a subject in which they feel defeated?

This brings me to the crux of todays blog post, is this the most difficult job in education? My answer is that any job in education, regardless of sector or subject, is as difficult as you perceive it. I may be thoroughly biased as I enjoy my job, not everyday, but as an overall occupation. I feel a lot of reward throughout the day in the small victories that are achieved, this may be one of my students excelling in a recent Functional Skills assessment, to receiving a christmas card from a student saying how confident they feel in passing their functional skills Maths at Level 2, a notoriously difficult qualification for some learners.

My most difficult moment remains this, I stood in front of a class of construction workers and realised that a lot of them probably won't succeed in getting their Maths qualifications. I considered what the point of the whole thing was, I was only ever going to get grief from the group as a whole? Why should I continue to take the brunt of the group.

I then changed my approach.

Instead of viewing the whole group as one, I took it apart, person by person and aimed to get to know each student individually. Talking to students about what they enjoy, what they like about their course and what they intend to do in the future enthuses them, it makes them feel that you care about their whole course and wellbeing. When you consider a group as the sum of it's parts, you start to see the cracks. You see the students who are hiding their frustration with bad behaviour, you see the angst of the students when you tell them that they have an assessment coming up.

This was prominent most of all with one of my learners, who wanted me to tell her she was stupid for not understanding the assessment I handed to her. Did I reprimand her for not answering any of the questions? Did I tell her to get on with it and work it out? No. I considered her feelings as a student in a classroom where she has had negative experiences before. I sat with the learner, and instead of assessing her, I talked her through the assessment. I talked to her and taught her about the methods that we covered previously. Rather than thinking that our students just don't get it, maybe we have to react and think about how our delivery and attitude could win them over so they want to learn.

I want to share a video from YouTube now, I thought this was a clear message in how we talk with our students and give feedback. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7bGv7LPL4Y) This clip was made in 1947, nearly 70 years ago, and a lot of the messages are still relevant today.

Consider how we talk to individuals rather than groups, think about the individual motivations and what you say in how it will motivate and inspire the learners in your care. You are the difference in a persons maths or english journey and you can make a difference.

Is this the toughest job in education? Yes, but the students, laughs, staff and victories make it all worthwhile.

Enjoy your weekend teachers, onward to the christmas holidays!

- Matt

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Do our students perceive us as the problem, or the solution?

A wave of mixed behaviour and assessments plague the Christmas season before the students and staff get a much deserved break. I've been busy working on other projects for my own development and I remembered that I have been slacking on the blogs.

What I am going to talk about today is the perception that our students have about us as FE teachers and lecturers. Our students come in to a system in which they have to attend further education until the age of 18. If they choose to continue at 19, they still have to complete compulsory English and Maths until they are 19 also. The students I work with have displayed unusual behaviour this week, sometimes the confrontations start and vary throughout the day. I believe this is down to personal frustrations and the feeling that they are tired from the longer side of the half term towards Christmas.

One of my students today was unmotivated, didn't want to be there and frustrated. It is very easy as a lecturer to be objective in this circumstance but the conversation I had with this learner afterwards was very insightful. This learner told me about her negative experience within school, and how her previous teachers would get on to her to work on her Maths. Our conversation revolved around her negative experiences with teachers, interestingly enough, she said that she hopes she has me as her maths teacher again next year, a positive message that I wouldn't have known about without taking the time to show I cared about her education.

What I learnt today was that our students view us as a part of a system that criticises, judges and demotivates their ambitions. We often tell our students to complete tasks and activities within lessons but within Mathematics, our students are often felt feeling belittled, small and often stupid. My students often tell me that they feel stupid when we don't get something, a feeling that is shared amongst my adult evening classes too. It is worrying when adults tell you how they feel upset when they don't understand some content you are delivering.

My advice for today is to consider your students as people, talk to them about their priorities and what they see themselves doing. Your students view you as part of the system, show them that you are interested in their wellbeing and learning while they are in your care. It's very easy to complain about behaviour, it's much more difficult to consider the cause and get to the root of the problem. I realised that my students aren't angry at me, but at the system that got them in contact with me, become deflective of negativity and know that it is not you, but rather the subject they are frustrated with.

A short post today, but I intend to do shorter posts throughout the week, and then end on a much bigger blog entry considering experiences shared. I am currently completing my QTLS qualification so I may not be able to post as frequently as possible, so thank you for reading and your continued support.

- Matt