Tuesday 24 August 2010


Do I come here often? Um, no, not much anymore... you might have noticed. Seven years have passed since I started "ranting" - that's a whole generation of secondary school students. I've changed schools, roles, and also now, I've realised, attitude. With this new decade I seem to have shrugged off my anger and frustration at the impediments of the job and have just learned to tolerate (or ignore) them. And I can attribute this to two main reasons.

Firstly, there's Twitter. Everybody's heard of Twitter nowadays, and I use it mostly as a personal diary or record of the mundanities I've been up to, and to "chat" with a number of friendly, funny, caring and lovely people from different walks of life. But I also "follow" a great number of enthusiastic and dedicated teachers, whose positivity and enlightening suggestions are inspiring. Some have developed "PLN"s - Personal Learning Networks (I think), which allow them to interact with subject / age specialists around the country and the world. Sure, there are those of us who come home after a tiring day at school and offload in 140 characters, and the beauty of it is that there is always someone there who knows exactly how you feel and cheers you up straight away. But overall, the positive experience that Twitter is for this ranting teacher has made me less ranting and more bantering.

Secondly, there's tutoring. Last year I began private tutoring for the first time, through absolute necessity. I found it immensely awkward to start with, from an ideological angle. I felt unsure about the exchange of money (even though I needed it!) because was it fair for these children to receive such an advantage just because their families could afford it? Then again, if it wasn't me taking the work, somebody else would have. And besides, it wasn't just affluent families who wanted tutoring for their children. The majority were the children of builders and salon owners etc - parents who were used to being paid for their trade. It was often the case that these teenagers had lost confidence in their own abilities, and needed their C grades to get into college. It made me sad to hear of children admitting that they didn't seem to learn anything because they were in a bottom set, and there were too many naughty children hindering their learning.

But what I gained from tutoring almost outweighed anything else: I gained a love of teaching again. I mean, a real passion. Here were children who (with one exception) were concentrating fully, willing and eager to learn, and whose moments of enlightenment were a real thrill to witness. I gained insight into how other schools tackled topics, and widened my own knowledge by researching areas I'd not taught before. And after a day of sometimes tiresome classes, or demanding management, it was quite often difficult to summon the energy to be enthusiastic for another hour or two. But after every tutor session I would feel enthused and energised because I'd had the opportunity to do what I'd entered the profession to do: teach, and make a difference.

And that in turn has had a knock-on effect on my classroom teaching. Working one-to-one with a wide range of abilities has enabled me to see why pupils find some things difficult, and inspired me to try new things I've learnt from their work with my classes. It's like a second-hand Inset: I've learned things from their teachers without having ever met them.

So there we go. Confessions of a not-so-ranting teacher. Because of Twitter and Tutoring I feel much more positive about teaching than I have done for years. That's not to say it's perfect, of course: still plenty to moan about! But I probably won't be saying it here. Instead, you'll find Ranting Teacher over on Twitter, along with a whole world of teachers who will amuse, support and inspire. So if you're not there already, come and say hello!

Monday 12 April 2010

Sun Stroke Seven

Well I guess I have sunstroke, or there must be something else in the air I can blame. Today marks 7 years since I first published a post as "Ranting Teacher" and yet today, the first day back at school after the Easter holidays, I actually felt full of enthusiasm for teaching.

But then, beginnings are always exciting after the initial Sunday night/ Monday morning funk. I've had time off to relax, read, and catch up with all that stuff that life throws our way but we don't often have time to deal with in term-time (like repeats of A Place in the Sun). Therefore, early start aside, I feel refreshed, and the shining sun helps too. There are new units of work to commence, and my resources are made and ready for use. When they're schemes of work I've had a hand in creating, or there is the flexibility to follow my own interests too, I feel most enthusiastic to get started.

Of course, once the marking starts piling up again, and the students start playing up, and extra hoops to jump through suddenly appear in a couple of weeks, I might not feel so spritely. But this is also a joyful time of year because after an initial flurry of activity it'll be time to wave goodbye to years 11 and 13, and au revoir to year 12, meaning extra PPA time to plan more kick-ass lessons, or just simply stop for a moment and smell the roses. Happy third term everyone!

Saturday 10 April 2010

The Facebook Effect

Yesterday I was thinking how my online presence has changed over the last seven years since I launched "Ranting Teacher". What I didn't consider was how the changes (advances?) in technology have affected the life of your average teen these days. But having just watched this week's new episode of "South Park", where one of the characters gets sucked into Facebook, it reminded me of school life once again, because although it may be satire, what happened in this episode is actually very insightful.

For example, every member of my form group has got either an iPhone or an iPod Touch. I can't blame them for wanting to compare apps at the first opportunity, even though they aren't supposed to have their gadgets on show in school, lest I swoop in and wrestle their headphones from their very persons.

Texting mates in lessons (or even better for their phone credit - bluetoothing) is a matter of course these days. I used to dread what was happening when students looked to be fiddling with something under the desk, but these days it's with tiresome predictability that there's a mobile phone involved. If you're a teacher, just test this yourself: during any one lesson, furtively switch on your bluetooth and see how many (usually rude) names spring to life on your screen. With one persistant offender I decided to get through the only way I could. I wrote a note on a piece of paper my desk: "Get on with your work!". I photographed it and bluetoothed it to the dozy student, who foolishly accepted whatever file was being sent to him. Ok, we had a little laugh about it, but it did the trick.

But Facebook seems to be a huge pressure on teens. "South Park" wasn't exaggerating. The unlikeliest of students are "Facebook friends" and these alliances are seen around school too, for example when one student shouts something to another about their status updates or photos, and they have never talked to each other in your class before. That it's used for bullying, there is no doubt. That it's more important to be "Facebook friends" with the right people than to have the right trainers these days is becoming more apparent. A great equaliser? Not really. It's very divisive. Several fights broke out at school last term because of what somebody had posted on Facebook, with two opposing factions grouping because of their Facebook links.

Even stranger is that some of my colleagues have easily discovered Facebook profiles, with pictures of their personal lives plastered all over them. So? you might argue, teachers should be entitled to use Facebook as well as any other breed of human. But what disturbs me is that some of these teachers are "friends" with current students. There seems to be a professional line that has been crossed there. And when I hear from these staff some of the school gossip they have discovered because it was posted on a pupil's "Wall", I do wonder if I'm being over-sensitive about this, or whether it's excusable. After all, I'm often party to conversations between students that I'd really rather not hear. It doesn't just happen online - there's real life too of course! But online, things seem to escalate. An offhand comment by somebody can be jumped upon, undefended, and circulated widely before the poster has had the chance to rethink.

My point is, that teenagers today are under pressures that weren't even imaginable when I was a teenager myself. Sometimes I wonder how different my teen years would have been with the internet and a mobile phone, and I always imagine it to have been vastly superior. Far better to woo a member of the opposite sex with a flirty text message or a "poke" on Facebook than to stand in a drafty phone box and hope the object of one's desires' mother didn't answer the phone instead.

But the other side to this is the added layers of social networking which can increase anxiety and turmoil in a teen's life. So something else to consider next time you hear somebody sneer, "What, you're not even on MSN? Won't mummy let you?" or banter about "Facebook friends".

Friday 9 April 2010

Spring forward

It's almost seven years since I took on the persona of "Ranting Teacher". Why did I do it? I'd moved from a wonderful school to one which was more of a struggle: bigger, unwieldier, messier, louder... I couldn't help but compare the two. So many things were frustrating me about that school that I felt I needed to vent my anger and frustrations somehow. Writing it down and putting it "out there" just made me feel better. But it wasn't such a bad school. (In its last two inspections it scored top marks and gold stars.) What was it that frustrated me? The parents? The students? The other teachers? Well, a combination of all of those things, alongside endless government initiatives, curriculum changes, and the constant demands on my time.

So what has changed in seven years? For "Ranting Teacher", it has changed from a slowly-coded html website, to this blogger site, and more lately, to a more frequent presence on Twitter where I've had the opportunity to have instant banter with a great range of great people.

For me as a teacher, I have changed jobs, schools, and lost the anger I felt several years ago. But I don't think this is a good thing. I ranted because I cared about the job and the students, and was frustrated when I couldn't do my job properly because of external pressures or circumstances. That I don't rant so much any more is a bit of a worry to me. Does it mean I'm not so bothered any more? Am I just going through the motions? It feels like it sometimes.

For me as a person, like anyone else I've experienced much change in the last seven years. Bereavements, break-ups, break-downs... In the last year or so my blog has been quiet, and it's because real life has got in the way much of the time. Maybe me and Ranting Teacher have a bit of a seven-year-itch.

But I know the ranting is still in there somewhere... because I still care about educating young people and I'm still passionate about my subject, and there are still so many impediments! The great thing about "tweeting" with other teachers is that I know I am in no way unique, and it's a great way to vent in a short and sweet (and not so sweet) way. Lots of teachers use Twitter to share good practice, ideas and developments instantly with colleagues around the world. I'm far more superficial with my banter but find the support from my Twitter friends immeasurable. So if you don't see me on here much, come and say hello on Twitter!

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Little Loners

Canteen duty is something that can be dreaded for a number of reasons, but for me it is often the pathos of that twenty minutes. For surely there is nowhere else around the school where is it possible to observe the hard time that some children go through. The saddest type of child I see is the Little Loner.

In lessons, the Little Loner is identifiable by their reluctance to join in group work. I combat this by sorting pupils into groups myself rather than letting them choose their own groups, and of course the benefits of this reach farther than simply inclusion of a shy or unpopular child.

The Little Loner will sit away from other children if possible, and is usually quiet, but often knows all the answers; however previous experience has taught the L.L. that you don’t earn kudos from your class mates by doing what the teacher wants. The L.L. therefore often retreats into a shell, but some of them are not actually aware of other children’s sniggers and persist in shooting up their hand at every opportunity.

I suggest if you have a keen Little Loner in your class, you move away from asking for “hands up”. One way to do this is to write each class member’s name on a card, and choose a card from the pack when you want somebody to tell you something. Or if your funding stretches to mini whiteboards, these are even better. Even disaffected pupils love to scrawl with a board pen on the slippery surface, and not only do you have every pupil (more) on task, but you also succeed in letting your keen Little Loner answer without fear of ridicule.

But back to the canteen. It’s all very well thinking of ways to include the L.L. in your lessons. And for the majority of lunchtimes most schools have refuges for L.L.s: lunchtime clubs like chess, Warhammer or maths puzzles, where they are no longer alone, but in the company of those who also avoid the harsh world of the playground. L.L.s are usually well known to the school librarian, as they settle down into their usual spot to read or surf the web. But even L.L.s have to eat…

It’s funny (peculiar not haha). Teaching has toughened me up so much. When I set out I was a bleeding heart who took seriously every bleat of “he’s bullying me”, and spent weekends worrying about something a child mentioned in passing. But when you meet about 180 children every day (form group plus five average teaching groups) it’s as much as you can do sometimes to even remember everyone’s name. (Seven weeks into the year and I still don’t know at least half of the pupils I teach.)

Yet nothing tugs at my remaining heart-strings as much as seeing the Little Loner eating a solitary snack or lunch in the canteen. Often it’s a case of a packed-lunch-pupil who can sit straight down without the tussle of the canteen queue, and it’s not long before they’re joined by some friends.

But sometimes packed-lunch-pupil dines alone on the healthy contents of their Tupperware box, and I have been wondering if there’s a correlation between the type of child who brings in a packed lunch and the probability that child will be more of a loner. Maybe there’s camaraderie to be had in the long queues to reach the canteen counter, or maybe the pushing and shoving toughens up children somewhat. (I could take this one further and wonder if having school dinners makes you more successful at getting served in pubs in later life… maybe there’s a PhD study in there somewhere.)

But even canteen-queue-child can be a Little Loner. On duty in the canteen I may recognise a pupil from my lesson, nervously focused on her slice of healthy canteen pizza, or his Tupperware pot of tuna pasta or sliced peppers and hummus; they’re the children not daring to look around, and trying to block out the din and clatter going on just beyond the half metre radius that constitutes the “no go” zone around them. I’ve learnt from experience that the worst thing to do is give a sympathetic little smile. This works well in the corridors, when you may well be the first person to smile at Little Loner that day, as you both escape rapidly into the swarm of noisy pupils. But in the canteen, smiling at a L.L. is tantamount to flashing a spotlight onto their seat and superimposing a bullseye onto their forehead. And the L.L. knows this.

There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to match-make between lonely pupils who I think would enjoy each others’ company. “Rosie, meet Emma, who also likes reading, and has two guinea-pigs as well!” And some schools have “buddy” systems that aim to do just this. But in the canteen, it just doesn’t work. Instead, the Little Loners sit at their separate tables, heads down until the deed is done and they can scuttle off to some sanctuary elsewhere. And it just seems to me the saddest thing for them to eat alone every day, in the midst of all the organised chaos of the canteen.

And then my duty is over, and I scuttle off back to my classroom, to unwrap the foil from around my sandwiches and mark books as I munch… alone...

Sunday 11 October 2009

The BBC Programme

Sunday: The Big Question - you have 7 days to watch this: Should teachers always set a moral example? It starts about 20 minutes into the programme. Features a Ranting Headteacher and Twitter's @schoolgate - Sarah Ebner. Interesting issues plus added hot air! Well done Sarah for reminding the public about the behaviour and responsibilities of parents! And well done sensible 12 year olds!

Moral Maze

Should teachers always set a moral example? This was a question posed on Twitter on Friday evening by @schoolgate – Sarah Ebner, a journalist at the Times Online.

That she was asking this on a Friday evening, as I wound down at home after another hectic week with a glass of wine or more, brought out my more facetious side (first identified and labelled as such by my RE teacher over twenty years ago). But it stirred up some strong feelings, particularly amongst former headteacher and now education writer @GeraldHaigh, a time-served teacher who clearly believes that “teacher” is a life-long vocation that stays with you even beyond retirement.

I may be flippant about this on Twitter – after all, there are only so many things you can express in 140 characters at a time. But it’s been something I’ve been thinking about all weekend, and I do have strong thoughts and opinions on how much “being a teacher” affects our lives, and those hours when we’re not in the school building.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a generational thing. In fact, different lines of morality weave through different generations of teachers. Today we are expected to at least appear to be upstanding members of the community, leading future generations by example. When I’ve taken PSHE sessions about the dangers of smoking and drinking, and pupils have asked me about my own experiences, I’ve felt like such a hypocrite by glossing over my own history like those times as a student (when I never dreamed I would evolve into a teacher) when I drunk so much I lost hours of an evening, or set my own hair alight waving a cigarette around, and so on.

And yet when I was at school as a pupil, I remember well the two separate staffrooms: one which was safe to approach, and the other whose door resembled a dragon’s mouth with smoke curling round the edges as teachers chain-smoked their way through breaks. Even two years ago, before one of the most popular teachers I have ever known retired, the only complaint about him was from pupils whose books were returned to them reeking of smoke where they had sat in his study as he marked them, fag dangling from mouth. He’d even ignore the work-place smoking ban, and light up in his classroom as soon as the final bell went, and puff his way through staff meetings. How was that setting a good example?

The other thing that springs to mind are those 80s songs like Madness’s “Baggy Trousers”
– “all the teachers in the pub, passing round the ready rub”… yep, these were the teachers of my youth, and from anecdotal evidence from those educated in the 1970s and 1980s at comprehensive schools, there are also many tales of violent ex-forces teachers, for example, who would threaten and abuse their pupils; I myself have witnessed a teacher pinning a boy against the wall by the scruff of his neck for what we now call “low-level disruption”.

So in a way, I think it’s hypocritical to now expect teachers to be the bastions of civilization and morality in their own time, if it’s not affecting anyone else. It wasn’t such an imposition on teachers twenty or thirty years ago, so why now? So we can no longer smoke in the staffroom, and have a pint or two at lunchtime, and a good thing too in my opinion, but why extend restrictions on our personal lives beyond the school gate?

However, that’s not to say I don’t think there should be guidance in place. It sends a shudder through me when I hear of my colleagues, mostly younger, who have Facebook pages and allow pupils to become their “friends”. I think if you are a teacher, and you have a personal Facebook page, then this should be absolutely private, and you shouldn’t allow access to pupils, and possibly their parents. There are so many people who don’t see anything wrong with allowing pupils into their social networks, so why do I think it’s wrong? Well firstly, pupils are not our friends. There should always be some kind of professional distance between pupils and teachers, however friendly you are, or however many sports teams you take away on trips. If you erode that professional distance, then you open yourself up for all kinds of potential problems. My private life is just that. It’s why I write under a pseudonym. I would never want anything negative to reflect on my pupils, colleagues or school.

What else? Well despite the way that previous generations have dealt with it, I don’t think that today’s teachers should drink alcohol or smoke in front of pupils. I know we’re only human, and that plenty of us do drink and smoke, but in the presence of pupils we are professionals, and should act accordingly. But in our own time, however, if we want to drink until we’re sick, then why not? As long as the pictures don’t get posted to Facebook where half the school can see them.

And here’s where another argument comes in. Some believe that once you become a teacher, you are a role model and that label shouldn’t be taken off during evenings and weekends. And this is why I don’t like the label of “teacher”. If I go out for a few drinks with friends and start chatting to people, I don’t want them to know I’m a teacher, because at that moment in that pub, it doesn’t define me. I don’t want them thinking of their own children’s teacher when they hear me slurring my words after three pints of shandy. I don’t want them thinking how irresponsible I am to be doing what they too are doing in that pub at that moment.

This reminds me of that frequent moment of surprise that young (and not so young!) children have when they see their teacher out of context, in a supermarket or the High Street. Children categorise their teachers as being that adult who they see at school, and often can’t imagine them elsewhere. I’ve even had 14 year olds go on for weeks in lessons about seeing me in the High Street, as if they can’t get over the surprise of one of their teachers being released from the school building for good behaviour, and actually having to buy groceries like a human being.

And that’s fine with me. In school I am a teacher. I am a consummate professional, because not only do I get paid to be so, but I also believe that this is the best way to guide today’s youngsters to become tomorrow’s citizens. But away from the stressful classrooms and corridors, I feel I should be allowed to conduct my life as other adults do. As long as I’m not doing it in front of their pupils, or in the same pubs they’re drinking in, I don’t see the problem.

Now there are many other arguments we could follow here. Should teachers be allowed to be members of the BNP? Should they be struck off for being caught drink driving or taking drugs? These are far more contentious, and perhaps for homework you could think about these issues for next lesson.

As a post-script, if you do follow me on Twitter then you’ll know from my regular evening tweets that these arguments are mostly theoretical, and that a night out for me these days is as rare as a hen’s tooth. But it’s the principle of the thing!