Education for (Real) Life

I don’t often write about my work on here. I had always intend to share some of what I do but there never really seems to be the right thing to write about and I always feel under qualified to be writing about it. But there have been some things on my mind recently and just feel the need to send these thoughts out into the void.

To give you a bit of context, I work as an HLTA (English specialist), and more recently Whole School Literacy Coordinator, in a large, comprehensive secondary school, in the suburbs of Manchester, where we have a very diverse student body. I started the HLTA role just before all the curriculum changes came into effect, so have seen the the tail end of the last specification and the process of moving across to the new. My role is interesting and varied and, in some ways, quite unique to our school. I have worked mainly with KS4 students, supporting them with their GCSE studies, and in KS3 I’ve worked mainly with year 7 students in their first term. Nearly all of my work supports students who struggle with English as a subject. In my newer role of WSL Coordinator, I work with students and staff across the curriculum supporting various literacy needs, and I am seeing more and more of the challenging nature of the new GCSE specs outside my own subject.

There is a lot I love about my roles and I am incredibly fortunate to work with an absolutely amazing team of people. There are also a lot of frustrations. Recently, my biggest frustration is an increasing feeling that I am working within a fundamentally broken system. A feeling that, despite the best efforts and intentions of the people working in education around the country, we are not equipping our students, our young people, for life in the 21st century. That our education system is no longer fit for purpose.

With the exception of the boards being dry-wipe rather than chalk, and the presence of a few more computers, classrooms today look largely the same as classrooms from a hundred years ago. So much progress has been made in the last century and yet we are teaching our children and young people (largely) the same things in (largely) the same ways. The one major change is probably in the amount of scrutiny and pressure put. upon schools and school staff, which, quite frankly, does no one much good and is surely having a negative impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of school staff – a negative impact which undoubtedly gets passed on to our students. As the noose of red tape and tick boxes tightens, we spend hours and days and weeks and months and years dragging students through curriculums saturated with content and yet lacking in diversity, in preparation for ‘rigorous’ exams that don’t really tell us much about students’ abilities. We sweat and bleed and stress over planning lessons and designing schemes, which, because they have to prepare students for said exams, so often end up with the passion and interest of the subjects drained out of them. And all the while our students are missing out on some of the essential skills needed for modern life.

Where are the opportunities for them to innovate and create? Where are the opportunities for them to problem solve and think outside the box? Where are the opportunities for them to find their passions, their interests, their skills and learn to hone them? Where are the opportunities to develop team working skills and to learn more about the beautiful diversity of living in a global age? Where are the life skills that equip them to recognise fake news, or to effectively challenge people in positions of power who are supposed to represent them but fail them continually?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is value in a broad and varied curriculum and in the traditional teaching of traditional subjects, and that some of these opportunities can be offered through it. But only if teachers are given the freedom to do so. Far too often, they are not. They are given the promise of such freedom but then presented with content and skills lists so vast that in practice that freedom is so limited as to be practically non-existent. Even if they did have trump freedom, shouldn’t we also be offering the opportunity for more? By all means, keep the study of a broad range of subjects through Key Stage 1, 2 and 3, but without the pressure of  continual formal assessment. At KS4, however, moulding it make more sense to choose a small number (just 4 or 5 rather than the current 9 or 10) of subjects to study, with more vocational options available to those less academically inclined? Why not keep English Literature, English Language, maths and sciences as optional subjects rather than compulsory ones, and have every student sit a core set of assessments in functional literacy, numeracy, and digital competency? If there are going to be core compulsory subjects at all surely they should provide skills that might equip them to function successfully in this digital age?

I am no expert and I don’t know what the answer is, but I can’t help but notice that those calling the educational shots aren’t exactly experts either, and I feel like they’re getting it all wrong.

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Work-Life Imagined – Career Visioning

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We spend so much of our lives working. Sometimes we just take a job that will pay the bills but, if we are lucky, or if it is in our power to do so, we can create opportunities for career development that will enable us to earn a living doing something we love. I’ve been in both these situations and I’ve recently found myself, once again, considering what it is I really want to do. What do I want my working life to look like? Where do my passions and skills lie? How can I create the career and life I imagine for myself when I’m daydreaming? I decided I wanted to share a bit about my process for career visioning on here but I’m going to indulge in a bit of reflection on my career journey so far first. This may end up being a bit of a rambling brain dump to begin with (which is part of my process) but if you’re interested some steps for career visioning but not my personal career history, feel free to skip the first bit and scroll doooowwn!

 

From Front to House to Head of House

Whilst I was in college, I had a few different part time and temp jobs: waitress, sales assistant, admin temp, and dance teacher’s assistant. When I left college, not sure what I wanted to do with myself and in need of money for rent, I started my full-time working life as a receptionist/administrator, and had several different roles of this ilk with the same company. Along side these pay-the-bills jobs, I was volunteering with a few different youth groups and projects. I found that I loved working with young people and the variety of jobs in this area interested me, so I took the plunge and decided this was what I wanted to do. I started looking into qualifying as a youth worker and with the support of my friends, family, and colleagues, I decided to embark on a Youth Work degree with The Open University.

To this day, I consider this one of the best decisions I ever made. I was still working full time and studying independently around my working and volunteer hours. It was hard work and I knew it was going to be a long haul (6 years in total), but it was so interesting and rewarding, and the OU was such a great institution to study with, that I knew I’d made the right choice. When I reached the third year of my degree, however, I was faced with a conundrum: I had to be working a minimum of 16 hours per week face to face with young people in order to qualify. Fitting that number of volunteer hours around my full time job was going to be nigh on impossible. If I wanted to continue my degree, I had to find paid work with young people.

One of my degree mentors, who had become a great friend, knew of a job coming up for a Lead Youth Worker at an ecumenical youth work project. I thought I would never get it but she convinced me to apply and, to my great surprise and pleasure, I got the job. The next three years were challenging, fulfilling, and (mostly) the best kind of exhausting. But as I reached the end of my three year contract I was once again faced with impending career change. Youth work funding across the country was being pulled; projects and youth centres were closing left, right, and centre; and, much though I loved the job, all the evening and weekend work was taking a lot of my time away from my friends, family, and lovely fiancé. I decided I wanted to find a way to continue working with young people whilst also freeing up more time to spend with the people I loved, who were working ‘normal’ hours. And that’s how I ended up doing the one thing I always swore blind I would never do: working in a secondary school.

I had to get my 16 year old inner-self to pipe-down in order to pursue this path. In spite of the fact that I have always loved learning, I was not a fan of secondary school – the best day of my secondary school career was the day I left! But it was the obvious solution and I actually decided that it was perfect for me because it would give me the chance to make school a little bit better for the young people who, like me, did not enjoy being there. So after a lot of applications and a handful of interviews I secured a post as a pastoral head of house and I was thrilled. I was convinced this was it: the start of my actual career.

It didn’t quite pan out the way I expected.

Just one year into the job, I found myself in a very unhappy place. I was stressed to high heaven because the workload was so demanding; the emotional intensity of the role meant I was sleeping terribly and spending the majority of my evenings in tears or a high state of anxiety. There were things I loved about the job. I loved working with the students and being able to provide them with support that they struggled to find anywhere else. But I was coming to realise that this was not healthy for me and that I needed to make a change.

And that terrified me.

I had just come to the end of six years of hard work to graduate from my youth work degree, there were barely any youth work jobs around and I felt completely unable to continue in a school based pastoral role. What on Earth was I going to do?

The answer arrived in a somewhat serendipitous manner. The school I was working at was looking to introduce a new role: HLTA in English. I have always loved English as a subject, adored reading, and enjoyed writing for pleasure. I kept thinking this could be something I could do. Something I would enjoy. Something I might be good at. But the post was only temporary and I wasn’t technically qualified, having done nothing related to English since I left college, not having either a TA or HLTA qualification, and having no experience of providing academic support. However, the school had had two rounds of  unsuccessful interviews and when I expressed a passing interest to my Deputy Head he said to leave it with him whilst he mulled it over. After a bit of back and forth and several conversations which I won’t bore you with here, I was offered a one year secondment to the HLTA post. Nervous about a role that was very different to any I had done before but feeling I had nothing to lose (and excited at the prospect of a change from the emotionally draining pastoral role), I leapt at the chance and a few months later I took up the post.

This is the job I still hold today. It is the role I have held longer than any other in my working life. It has offered me more opportunities that I would have anticipated and I have LOVED the variety, challenge, and development I have experienced through it. In this role I have qualified as a HLTA, undertaken a nationally recognised leadership and management qualification with ILM, taken on an additional role as Whole School Literacy Coordinator, and worked with the most amazing team of people. I have been given a huge amount of freedom and flexibility to develop the role and experiment with new forms of intervention and academic support. It has had it’s ups and downs but this job has been the right one for me for a long time.

But lately, I’ve been itching for another change.

I find myself increasingly disillusioned with our education system. So many top-down changes and demands are forced on our schools and – with the best will in the world from passionate, dedicated, and talented staff – it feels increasingly difficult to instil a love of learning, and share passion for your subject in creative and engaging ways, as well as checking all the necessary boxes. That is a whole conversation in and of itself (and not one for right now) but I also find that I’m contemplating what other opportunities I want to pursue for myself, and whether I will be able to find them in this role.

And this is where career visioning comes in. (Finally, I hear you say!)

 

Imagine The Work-Life You Want

If, like me, you feel yourself wanting to make changes to your work life but not really being sure what you want that to look like, I suggest starting by reflecting on your own work/career journey so far, then using the prompts below to explore what you might want to change. Please note that I offer this only as a process that has been useful to me, and only as a starting point. I’m not a career or life coach, and I definitely don’t have the answer for reaching that dream – in fact I am still in the middle of figuring this all out for myself – but I found this helpful for reflection on my own career and in identifying possible areas I could pursue.

I sat down with pen and paper (computer, tablet or phone would work just as well) and considered the following:

  1. Identify the things in your current job (if any) that you enjoy – think about your team/company/area of focus as well as aspects of the job itself.
  2. Come up with ideas for how you would change your current role if you had the freedom and opportunity to do so – would you take on more responsibility? Less? Do the hours suit you or would you want more flexibility? Are there areas of your current role you’d like to be able to give more time to?
  3. List the things (in work or otherwise) that you would like to do more of – are there any skills or knowledge that you’d really like to pursue or develop? Do you have any hobbies that you secretly would like to be able to make a living out of?
  4. Daydream your ideal work scenario – what does your dream work life look like? Part-time? Self-employed? Moving to a bigger company? Working from home? Do you want to continue in the same area but a different role or do you want to do something completely different?

Take your time considering these areas and answering these questions. Maybe jot down initial ideas then leave it for a few days and come back to it: do you still feel the same? Has anything else occurred to you? Do this a couple of times. After you’ve allowed yourself time and space for reflection consider your gathered ideas and look for threads of connection.

Is there anything you’ve identified that you could develop in your current role? If so, consider talking to your colleagues or line manager about whether there might be the opportunity to pursue this as part of your professional development. If it seems like there is nothing in your current role you could develop, look for any crossover in your answers to the other questions. Are there any areas that clearly emerge as having captured your interest? Are there any career/job possibilities that spring to mind which would incorporate this?

 

From Daydream to Reality

Getting these ideas together is all well and good but what do you do with them now? This is the tricky bit, partly because everyone’s current reality, and everyone’s daydream, will look completely different. Maybe your daydream is only a few steps from your current reality and all you need to do is widen your network, pitch an idea to your boss, or explore undertaking a training that would help you achieve promotion. On the other hand, maybe your daydream is a world away from your current reality and achieving it will involve retraining, or even going back to school. I am well aware that for many people, pursuing a daydream career seems impossible.

Getting from A to B when you’ve got bills to pay, a family to provide for, or limited opportunities to undertake further training can seem like an unbridgeable gulf. I know myself to be very privileged when it comes to the opportunities I have had and continue to have, but even though I can see where I want to get to, I struggled to imagine how I might get there. I need the full time wage I currently earn and achieving my dream work-life seemed to require more time and/or money than I have to give.

I had to acknowledge that if this was something I truly wanted, I would have to be in it for the long haul. I would have to find a way to create small stepping stones to get across that gulf and accept that it might take years to reach my end goal, if I got there at all. So that is what I’m doing.

I don’t have the answer. I don’t know if I will get there. I’m not even sure exactly what my stepping stones will look like, although some are starting to take form in my mind. But I do know that, whether it works or not, I want to put my energy into trying to create the work-life I want for myself. I want to live by the words of Henry David Thoreau:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Have you achieved your dream work-life or ever gone through a career change? What helped you get there? Say hi in the comments and share any pearls of wisdom!

Happy dreaming.

This Girl Can (and you can too!)

  
I hate running. A lot.

It’s hard work, it does not come naturally to me and I find it boring. Finding it boring makes it even harder work because there is nothing to distract me from the fact that I’m finding it difficult. However, a few months ago I decided that it would be good fun to run a 5km with my hubby. I suggested this to him and we agreed we would go for the Manchester Colour Run 2016. 

At the time I thought this was a great idea because a) it would mean doing something with my hubby (a definite win), b) it would help me keep fit, and c) how hard could it be to run 5km anyway?

As it turns out, very hard indeed. At least it is when you hate running as much as I do.

I started using the treadmill more at the gym to build up some stamina before running outside (where there are hills and roads and stuff – scary). At first I could barely run 1km without it nearly killing me but slowly I could run further and further. I managed 2km…then 2.5km…then 3km…and then I hit a block. I just couldn’t seem to run further than that. 

Mega frustrating.

There was one day during the summer holidays when I’d had a really good night’s sleep, a reasonably long lie in, a good breakfast (and time for it to go down) and decided to go for a mid morning trip to the gym. On this occasion I magically managed to run 5km!! Granted, the last km nearly killed me but I did it and I was so pleased with myself. I thought that would be it then, I’d do it again and again, I’d get faster and it would feel easier.

Nope.

The next time I went I was back to that 3km road block again. And the time after that, and the time after that, and so on for 8 long weeks.

I lost heart pretty quickly; I do not like not being able to do things I feel I should be able to do.

It has been a very long, busy week at work. Every day this week I’ve been in early and left late. So when I got home today, going to the gym was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do. I moaned about it, pulled faces and posted a *reluctantly heads to the gym* tweet. 

I decided I wasn’t going to push myself too hard (I really was tired) and agreed I would slow my pace a little and just set the treadmill to do a 25 minute run. I would do what I could.

As I was running, I started thinking about all the year 11 students I work with at school. How frustrating it is when they choose not to put in the effort. How maddening it is when they say they just “can’t” do it, when I know that they can, or that they could with just a bit more focus and hard work.

I realised that that mindset really does make all the difference.

[Growth mindset is one of our big ‘things’ at work this year; I’m not going to go into it all now but if you’re not already aware of it you should go and look it up. It’s a simple yet brilliant concept!]

As I was thinking about this and what I could do to motivate these students, to get them to think positively about themselves and their abilities, I somehow, without realising it, ran 2.5km without much effort. (Usually by that point I’m already flagging in a major way.) The treadmill switched automatically to a cool down…but I wasn’t done thinking.

I reset it for another 25 minute run and kept going.

I realised that they way I feel about running is probably how a lot of the kids I work with feel about school; it’s hard work, it’s boring and it doesn’t come naturally. But I know, in spite of these barriers, that these young people can achieve something to be proud of.

I was wracking my brain to think of things I could do to re-engage them with the process of learning. Getting them to understand that making mistakes is part of getting better, and to use those mistakes as tools for improving.

That’s when I hit 5km.

It was a good feeling but, honestly, I was less interested in what I’d achieved and more interested in how I’d done it. By slowing my pace by a tiny amount (0.2km/hr) and keeping my mind busy, I had managed, with relative ease, to do something I had been struggling with for months. Could I find a way to apply this to my students learning? Or rather get them to apply it to their own learning?

I haven’t quite come up with the answer to that one but I’m sure it must be possible. It will certainly be in my thinking when I’m interacting with students from now on.

There was one more thing I learnt during my gym trip tonight. The woman  I was running next to was running faster and had run far further than me. But that didn’t matter. I knew that what I had managed was a big achievement for me. And I need to pass that on to my students. I need to find a way to say: Ignore the person in your form who seems to be getting A* after A* with very little effort ; you don’t know what they put in to get there. Ignore the person next to you who has written 3 paragraphs for your 1; more isn’t necessarily better. Comparing your work to others is unhelpful; compare your effort instead and just focus on putting your very best effort into your work. If you are still struggling, slow it down a bit but don’t stop and don’t give up.

This ended up being much longer and much more convoluted than I intended, but somehow it felt like and important message to share. Because it applies to us all in whatever context we find ourselves. Whether you are training to run 5km, 10km or a marathon; whether you are preparing for your GCSEs, A levels or degree; whether you’re working towards a promotion, trying to keep your house clean, writing a book or raising children (or several of these thing at once), keep going, slow it down if you need to, don’t compare yourself to others and DON’T GIVE UP! Your journey is your own and it’s just as important as the destination.

If this girl can, so can you.

Today’s the Day…

Seven years after starting my degree, today I finally graduate!

Warning: here comes the soppy bit…

I absolutely could not have done this degree without all the wonderful friends, family and colleagues who have supported me and there are a few who need special thank yous. My wonderful husband Dave; thank you for staying up late to read through my assignments; for putting up with my mini breakdowns every time an exam came round and for generally being incredibly supportive and encouraging. I know I spent a lot of time working trough the evening and weekends instead of spending time with you and not once did you complain. Thank you.

All my incredible parents, Neville, Cathy, Thel, Paul, Sue and Tony; thank you for talking me into it! For being so confident I could do it and do it well; for offering encouragement and advice when it got tough; for giving me somewhere to live and for helping me out so I could afford the fees for the last few years; for always being so happy and proud when my results came through. For being generally wonderful. Thank you.

My incredible mentors Susie and Cat; I literally could not have completed it without you! You gave up evenings to come and observe me; you always gave me encouraging and helpful feedback; you supported me when I hit tough spots; you fought my corner; you listened to my ideas and praised me and inspired me the whole way. I am a thousand times better at my job for having had you two awesome youth workers to guide me. Thank you.

Thank you to the Open University; without the opportunity you presented I’m not sure I would have ever completed a degree. So thank you for existing and operating the way you do.

There are many more people who have been part of this journey with me (you know who you are!). Thank you to you all.

Love you x