Monthly Archives: November 2012

How to create greater independence – all advice gratefully received

Allow me to tell you a little about my dog, Rusty.

Rusty definitely has some specific needs. If he was sent to school he would come with the benefit of a pupil premium. A colleague was walking in the nearby town of Cullera about twelve months ago and came across Rusty in a closed box next to some street bins. His young son was pointing to the bins animatedly and saying “bow wow”. Despite an effort to ignore what at first seemed like a childish error “no son, that’s not a dog it’s a box!”, he stopped and discovered a grubby five week old puppy who was delighted to have been found. Subsequent vet checks confirmed that the dog was healthy and after a treatment for mites and worms was ready to find a home.

My colleague, who lived in a flat, couldn’t keep him. The dog’s home confirmed that they would take him but that they had so many animals that after a few weeks if he hadn’t found a home they would have to put him down. With hearts of steel my wife and I agreed to take him for a couple of days as a trial and so, twelve months on, he is as much a part of the family as any of us. Which brings me to my dilemma…well, first, a little more on Rusty’s needs.

Rusty is marked on his pet passport as predominantly red setter. This is an error on the part of the vet that I did try to correct but she was having none of my advice. He is the size of a springer spaniel, but with shorter hair. He fetches in the same way as a spaniel might. He has the build and shape of a springer spaniel and the face of a springer spaniel. The vet however, using a slightly twisted logic deduced that due to his colour he was predominantly red setter. I did point out that by the same logic most bananas are therefore lemons but my pleas to declare him predominantly spaniel were ignored.

When we first took Rusty out for walks, being on a lead on the ground was, for him, too far away from us and the separation anxiety would build until one relented and carried him. He is better now with the whole walking business and an advantage of this neediness is that I can walk him off the lead knowing that he can only go a few yards away from me without needing to return. The other day just out of a cruel investigative interest I found myself testing Rusty’s need to be close at all times. I got up from the sofa and walked out of the back door. Without a pause the dog also woke up and trotted alongside. Not only had I not called him I hadn’t even acknowledged him! How long could he walk beside me without receiving any eye contact or verbal recognition? To test I walked around the house and in though the front door, passed straight through the house and out through the open back door. I continued until it was clear the dog was quite happy to continue for ever if it meant avoiding being more than a metre or two away from me. When I sat back on the sofa after five minutes of the same journey he sat beside me as though we had just engaged in the most perfectly normal activity in the world.

A couple of evenings ago he brushed against a guitar that I have standing against the wall. The guitar moved ever so slightly and as it did so gave out a small sound as it scraped across the floor. Rusty backed away in fear from what was clearly a haunted instrument. For twelve months he hadn’t noticed the guitar but now it is a more terrifying prospect than doggy bath time! I only have to pick up the guitar for the dog to back away across the room with his tail between his legs.

And so to our dilemma. What do we do with our dog at Christmas when we return to spend a fortnight with family. The cats are fine. A neighbor can come in every couple of days to feed them and they will probably not notice our absence, but Rusty! Clearly if I cannot find somebody to offer him a home for the Christmas period I am going to have to place him in the kennels. To do so and not completely go into doggy meltdown however, he’s going to need to develop a little more independence and become just a little less needy and reliant. How do I go about doing that with the dog? What can I do to encourage a little more confidence so that he can make it through a ten day absence from us without the separation anxiety driving him completely crazy?

And then, can I use the same skills in school with the pupils. I guess in some ways the problems are similar. Rusty needs strict behaviour guidelines and therefore has a tendency to look to us for permission. We do also behave occasionally like slightly over indulgent parents towards him which perhaps feeds his reliance on us. How do we create that independence in our pupils. Yes, we have strict behaviour guidelines. Yes, our parents are exceptionally caring towards their children. Like Rusty maybe they become slightly too dependent when what we are trying to achieve is self-motivated, independent learners. I found this article that I think is ideal for pupils although I may struggle to apply all the concepts to rusty.
www.creativeeducation.co.uk/blog/index.php/2011/05/independent-learning/

Any other ideas – please feel free to post them in the comments section below.

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Myself a learner

Myself – a learner

The sun already felt hot this morning as I drove to work. The oranges are ripening on the trees and the harvest is imminent.The air has been superbly clear for the last few days and the views extended for tens of miles. Wind farms and centuries old castle ruins littered the peeks of distant mountains, the ancient and the modern taking the most prominent positions side by side. The drive from The village of La Barraca to Xativa takes about half an hour. Even if leaving home has felt a rush the drive itself is quite calming. A single carriage road winds through the orange groves and from ten minutes outside of the town, Xativa castle can be seen looking down on the town. A rural area with dominant industries mainly based on the land, Xativa is a historical town with the claim to fame of being the first town in Europe to manufacture paper.

Today, school contained all of the usual management issues that make the day feel full: an 8.00am call from a teacher who was too ill to come to work, a concern about upcoming observations, issues with the school Internet and Intranet and two different staff meetings to prepare and deliver.

The highlight of my day though was to spend the afternoon in class with pupils from Year 5 and Year 6. In partnership with the school psychology team I am planning and delivering a course of lessons called by the school ‘Study Skills’, although I personally prefer the title ‘Learning to learn’. Apart from being more a more accurate description of what takes place ‘Learning to learn’ can be abbreviated to ‘L2L’ which seems to carry a certain SMS style kudos with the pupils.

We have just completed a series of lessons exploring our own barriers to learning and how we can manage these effectively to ensure that learning can take place. The pupils were incredibly astute in recognising their own barriers to learning. They have now developed a range of strategies to overcome these barriers with the emphasis on maintaining a positive and happy approach to learning. Today we were introducing the next unit of this work ‘Myself – a learner’. The children will be exploring themselves as learners which will give an opportunity to think about how we learn and to develop an awareness of different learning styles.

We began with the following fascinator:
“If your best friend scratched your father’s new car with his bike what would you do?
Pretend you knew nothing about it? Tell your father it was you? Tell your father what your friend had done? Something else?”
That provided a five minute energy filled discussion!
(Thanks to John Turnerfor introducing ‘fascinators’ as a way of hooking children in at the start of a lesson.)

We then used the BASIS questionnaire resource from Alistair Smith and Nicola Call’s ‘The alps approach – accelerated learning in primary schools.’ (ISBN: 9781855390560).
To those not familiar with the alps resources, BASIS is an acronym for:
Belonging
Aspirations
Safety
Individuality
Success

These aspects of a child’s self-concept are important if they are to be willing to learn. As a teacher it is an opportunity not so much to diagnose issues but more to create a conversation about the class and school environment.

As we were working helicopters and planes were fighting a fire that had developed on a nearby mountain side. We could see the flames and smoke through the classroom window and watch the planes dropping their water. Ringing in my ears were the words of Hywel Roberts from our recent training event. In demonstrating how as teachers we can sometimes squash the energy that pupils bring to school he gave the example of an elephant walking past the classroom. Clearly there have been times when at such a point we have been guilty of demanding the children’s attention with lines such as “Look at me! Haven’t you seen an elephant before. You’re not going to learn anything by watching the elephant!” I decided to resist the temptation to fight for attention with the mountain fire and instead we all took a couple of minutes out to watch and discuss what was going on. In a classroom where pupils have English as a second or third language it is incredible how much great language and vocabulary development can take place discussing an exciting event that wouldn’t normally be a part of our classroom curriculum.

Myself today, I learned something about Guy Fawkes. Caught totally unawares by questions that a teacher had hoped to answer using the currently non-functioning school Internet, a colleague instead went online using her mobile telephone to find the answers. I had always thought, I’m sure from some mis-guidance in a classroom when younger, although it is possible I just wasn’t listening, that Guy Fawkes (aka Guido Fawkes) was a Spanish catholic intent upon destroying the protestant British parliament. It turns out though that he was a home grown terrorist, born in York and that his name ‘Guido’ was only given to him when he opted to fight with the Spanish catholics. My own learning style today was to listen to a colleague reading from Wikipedia. I think probably “Let’s Wiki it!” is my current dominant learning style.

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Spanish Sundays

Spanish Sundays

Sunday always seems like the embers of the weekend. I think the fact it was a four day weekend due to the All Saints’ Day Holiday only adds to that feeling. How do teachers secure a work life balance? I would suggest that the aspects of both work and life should be condensed into those things that matter most.

Somehow getting that balance seems easier working in an international setting. We took the dog for a trip to the beach this afternoon. He does love the beach and never tires of swimming to retrieve a stick. The dog, Rusty, is a rescue dog with certain abandonment issues. Having been found by the bins near a beach he never strays far from us even when out. Today the Mediterranean Sea looked just too enticing to leave only to Rusty so when his stick ventured too far for his usually brave retrieval instincts I waded in and joined him in the water. The day was hot but the water was cool – maybe 17 degrees. After splashing around for twenty minutes or so and avoiding a jellyfish the size of a basketball I dried off within five minutes of standing on the beach. It was one of those warm pleasant winds from inland and the views back towards the mountains were spectacular.

We were home barely an hour before it was time to take my daughter to her weekly horse riding session. We finally sat down at home at about half past seven this evening. Of course, all of those activities are available in the UK although the idea of swimming in the sea in November may take a little more courage in the UK than it does here in Spain. The difference is that with the bright sunshine here one is actively encouraged to go out for the day. The four day weekend was coupled with all the usual work of a teacher. Writing the Christmas nativity script, editing music for the Christmas production, marking assessments, planning for the week ahead. It is just that I genuinely do feel that in comparison to my UK work commitments as a teacher I do now find more time for family and relaxation and that the work and life are far more evenly balanced than they were when teaching in the UK.

How do you get your work life balance correct and if it is out of balance, how can you put it right?

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You are not a tree…

You are not a tree. If you don’t like where you are, then move.

Relocating to Spain was not something that we did lightly. For me, I was hitting a wall with regard to teaching in the United Kingdom. In February this year, four years after I agreed to take a job here in Spain, I was attending a conference in Madrid and listening to a speaker from the Department for Education. She was trying to entice independent schools in Spain to sign up for OFSTED inspections as a badge of credibility to the work they are doing. Do they need credibility such as this? I remain unconvinced. The school at which I am headteacher of primary exceeds national United Kingdom averages for end of Key Stage 2 results and this with pupils who have English as a second, third or more language. When the same pupils finish their A-Levels 100% go on to their university of first choice having achieved results far in excess of the norm in the United Kingdom. Why does the DfE think these schools want a badge of respectability over and above their achievements?

I think two concepts are at play here.
1: The DfE is struggling to cope with their own loss of expensively trained staff. A huge number of teachers training in the United Kingdom are moving to use that qualification and experience in an International setting. The cost is one problem but the need to keep teachers, especially those in the secondary sector, in the United Kingdom is very real. If the flow of teachers abroad is not stemmed or the retraining of replacements financed then in 10-12 years time the United Kingdom is looking at some serious teacher shortages in secondary education.
2: The DfE is consistently blinded by the assessment of pupils, teachers and schools. OFSTED is just one of the tools involved in this process. Surely the first question when evaluating a school is to look at the learning that the pupils are engaged in at the school. When you see learners interested and engaged, when you see that the end result is excellent results, then surely the most significant badge of credibility is already achieved.

I watch the children each morning unloading from the fifteen coaches that bring them to school and see that they come to school happily, excited by what the day may offer. I feel part of a team of teachers making a real difference in the lives of pupils who are well supported at home and keen to learn. What I do makes a difference and that is the key motivator for me as an educator.

When I was in the United Kingdom I worked in one of the toughest inner city areas of the west country. I’m sure those that holiday in the west country have the perception of a wealthy part of the United Kingdom but the truth in the inner cities is very different to the holiday atmosphere portrayed on the beaches. The sight of children returning with their own children at just sixteen or seventeen years old left me with a sense of futility. It seemed as though no amount of education spending could make any real difference to the lives of the people living on the inner city estates. Regardless of this the teachers were the most pressured and criticised and yet worked so hard in trying to raise the prospects of the children in their classes. The final senior leadership meeting I attended in the United Kingdom was exploring how we could raise the contextual value added measure of the school which had dipped below 100 and therefore was creating a negative image of the school. The purpose of the meeting was to identify strategies for increasing the number of pupils opting to eat their free school meal. Indeed, if all the children who were entitled to the free school meal ate it, the value added measure would leap and the school to all external evaluators would be doing an excellent job. Present were the headteacher, the deputy headteacher, the advanced skills teacher, and three coordinators – a combined annual salary of around £220,000 meeting for two and a half hours. The futility of the work of teachers being judged in this way is why I believe many teachers have just had enough. Teach elsewhere or leave teaching for another career?

I enjoy teaching, love the classroom and decided to give it a go somewhere else. I’m glad I did and would urge others feeling in a similar rut to remember that “you are not a tree – if you don’t like where you are, then move.”

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