Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Why I Never Use The Word 'Busy'

It all started when, every week, an unemployed friend would ask me how my week had been, to which I invariably replied 'Busy!'. As time went by, he began answering the question for me: 'Busy?' I felt mightily uncomfortable as I highlighted the major difference between my week and his: I was 'busy' and fulfilled, he was largely at a loose end as he applied for job after job, consequently feeling very unfulfilled. I decided to stop saying I was busy, instead telling him some of the things I'd been doing instead, making for much more interesting conversation.

I decided to completely stop using the word - not to colleagues, not to my wife and not to my friends. By definition I was, and still am, busy, but I ceased to describe myself so.

Apart from boring people with a one word answer when they genuinely enquired about my week, there has been another benefit too:

In telling others that I was busy, I was telling myself that I was busy too. And in telling myself that I was busy, I told myself that I didn't have enough time to do everything that I needed to do. I found myself writing things off before I even had a chance to look at my schedule - 'How could I possibly fit that in? I'm way too busy.'

Now that I don't label myself as busy, I am finding that I have a better attitude towards the additions to my to-do list. Now I think 'I can do that. I can fit that in'. And I do. I've also found (as previously mentioned here under 'Routines and Busyness') that when my schedule is full I work more efficiently; knowing that there are other things lined up for me to do means I get on with tasks.

On a practical note, there are three things that have really helped me with fitting lots into my day:

  • the apple calendar (there are other calendars available) which syncs between my ipad, iphone and icloud. I use this instead of a paper diary these days and I plan jobs into consecutive blocks of time. The calendar reminds me when it is time to do something; it's a bit like having my mum around and is very effective - I have to do it if the calendar tells me to.
  • the apple reminders app which again syncs between devices. Both this app and the calendar app allow you to schedule and set reminders for jobs - this is almost the key to all my organisational success! Naturally I'm quite forgetful, but with these apps, you'd not be able to tell. I am now in the habit of reaching for the nearest device and making a note on my job lists (in the reminders app) or booking something in to my calendar, meaning that I don't have to remember to write it down later. If something doesn't end up getting done, I just change the date and time of when I'm going to do it.
  • an actual notebook, you know with paper pages. I have no scraps of paper. Everything goes in the notebook: CPD notes, planning ideas, answers to maths tasks that I need to mark, observation jottings, SLT meeting notes... everything goes in!
So by being busy, but not thinking of myself as busy, I find myself maximising the time I have and using it much more effectively. It's been a very simple change, but one that psychologically seems to have had a big impact on how I work.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Unfailing Optimism: Does It Work?

Like damp rising within I've felt a fear: the fear that everything I write will be sneered at as idealistic, unrealistic, patronising and platitudinous. The very people I wish I could influence (not for my gain but theirs) are predisposed to believe that change for the better is not achievable. Indeed I've had such comments; other people simply refuse to engage.

Some have interpreted my content as advice that we teachers should just shut up and get on with the job resigning ourselves to the fact that we have to work 90 hour weeks (probably). They think positivity and optimism in the face of turbulent times in the profession are worthless and pointless qualities to be advocating. Despite the fact that I constantly try to back up the calls for positivity and optimism with practical advice, I'm sure there remain naysayers and detractors. 

"He was unfailingly optimistic, and disapproved strongly if anyone showed a long face," wrote a Frank Hurley of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton's second-in-command on the harrowing Endurance expedition to the South Pole. After months of being stuck in pack ice, losing their ship, sailing through icy seas with set back after set back along the way, Frank Wild, when left in charge of the majority of the crew on Elephant Island whilst Shackleton pushed on to find help, still expected his men to be positive and optimistic. And it saved their lives. Of course he ensured, as Shackleton did also, that many practical steps were taken to make sure that pessimism, hatred and depression didn't set in after braving the polar seas in life-threatening conditions.

Perhaps, if being 'unfailingly optimistic' can save lives, then maybe it can change lives too. Positive thinking might seem wishy-washy and unscientific but in survival scenarios it has been seen time and time again that positivity wins the day. For Shackleton and his crew, where expeditions such as Scott's ended in fatality, optimism was key: no matter how bad things were (and things were bad) Shackleton never gave the slightest sign to his crew that he thought they were going to die. He optimistically believed that they would make it out alive, and against all the odds, they did.

It is interesting that the Endurance crew members' diaries reveal that throughout the ordeal they felt well-led, looked-after and happy, and in turn most of the crew members, most of the time, were optimistic too, never doubting their leader and his optimism.

Sometimes we have to force ourselves to be positive in our thinking in order to effect change. Waiting for a situation to alter before you can think positively and feel well and happy is the wrong way round. If Shackleton had waited until he'd reached the whaling station where help lay he would no doubt have reached it with many of his crew members dead, that's if he wasn't dead himself. We must rise above the difficulties of a situation, think optimistically and let that steer our thoughts, ideas and decisions if we are to survive the wilds of teaching right now.

To finish, a quote from Shackleton himself, when asked to give some advice to some school children: "...in trouble, danger, and disappointment never give up hope. The worst can always be got over."

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Working For The Weekend

Some might say I labour under the illusion that, as a teacher, one doesn't have to work at the weekends. Except it's not an illusion because I don't work at the weekends. There are others like me. Working at the weekend at home would be problematic for me as three under-five-year-old girls also live in my house. They are looked after all week by my amazing wife and by the time Friday night comes around I have to flick the 'work' switch to off and the 'life' switch to on. My wife needs me to, the girls need me to and I need to, too. To take it further, my colleagues need me to, my class need me to, my boss needs me to - if I haven't recharged my batteries at the weekend then work suffers as well.

So, how is this possible? 

Firstly, I recognise that I work in a supportive school with leaders who I know I can talk to if things are getting too much. When I was at interview for my post, I made them aware of my family situation - they took me on knowing that my whole life wouldn't be committed to the job, and they weren't empty promises. I am provided with a good amount of time to get work done within school hours, but just as all teachers find, it still isn't enough.

However, analysing my current situation, I think, could perhaps help one or two others. For example, I know weekends are out-of-bounds. My deadline for the week is Friday home-time, and all being well, work won't resume until Monday morning (apart from those times when I re-plan a whole lesson in the shower on Saturday morning). What might help you to avoid weekend work?

Deadlines
Deadlines are widely acknowledged to be an important aspect of productivity. What would happen if you set a similar deadline to the one my family dictates? If you've ever known an event was going to stop you from working at the weekend, then you probably got done what needed doing during the week, then enjoyed your best friend's wedding or your partner's birthday weekend away, possibly even returning to work on Monday feeling relaxed (even if you did get that Sunday-night feeling as you thought about another busy week ahead).

Routine & Busyness
I recently visited a physiotherapist who prescribed a few exercises which are to be completed three times a day. In the week, at my busiest times, I do every set of exercises. At the weekend, when I have loads of time to spare, I do one set at best. What's the difference? Routine and busyness. When I'm busy, I get more done as part of my daily routine. At less busy times, like the weekend, I am less productive. Using up those spare bits of time during the week can reap you the benefits at the weekend. You're probably more likely to be productive in those short time slots, in amongst the busyness of doing other jobs, than you might be at the weekend after you've had a lie in, a leisurely coffee and have neglected to get dressed!

Focus
I have to focus in order to be productive. To get more done in less time I have to do one task at a time. If other things are going on then I am distracted and take far longer to do things. Many teachers plan with the TV 'on in the background' (guaranteed not to be in the background, but in front of them!) - this one, I'm sure is down to personal preference, but removing all distractions (such as the TV) may just help you to cut down on work time. I'm convinced the work/life balance doesn't mean doing both at the same time, rather it means doing one, then the other: some work, then some play. 

My pastor always says 'If you don't book it in, you book it out!' and it is true; booking in time on the life side of the balance is a better way to ensure you get it. By making deadlines you are carving out time for 'you' (and your family, friends, hobbies etc), which is essential for your wellbeing. By using time during the week whilst you're already caught in the momentum of busyness you will achieve more. And by dedicating time to work without distractions you will be more productive. Any one of these time-saving methods could be employed alone, but together they are a powerful formula for beginning to avoid weekend work.

This video (The Science of Productivity) has some more great tips for how to get more done in less time:

Monday, 4 January 2016

Times Tables: What is Knowing?

@tombennett71: There should be nothing controversial about a mainstream expectation for children to know times tables and we'll look daft if we dispute it.

And I agree. Apart, perhaps, from the part about 'know'. What does 'know' mean? Merriam-Webster defines 'know' thus:

  • to have (information of some kind) in your mind
  • to understand (something) 
  • to have a clear and complete idea of (something)
  • to have learned (something, as a skill or a language)
If a child, when they are tested on their tables in 2017, can choose their own version of 'know' then I definitely agree. When you've wiped away your tears of laughter after watching Nicky Morgan avoid answering 11x12, read what she said: "We are introducing a new check to ensure all pupils know their times tables by age 11." She says 'know'. The 'by heart', 'by rote', 'by memory' rhetoric has been added by the papers who gleefully reported the news, glad at the chance to stick another knife in the back of the profession. So, theoretically children don't have to know their tables by heart.

The reason why this issue resonates with me, and with many others, is that as a child, despite my dad's best efforts, I found it impossible to learn my tables by heart. And I still don't know them all today. What I can do is work out multiplication problems very speedily using Merriam-Webster's second, third and fourth definitions. I understand what happens when you multiply one number by another so I can solve a problem. I have a clear and complete idea of how timetables link to other areas of maths. And I have learned lots of methods (you might say skills) to help me to work times tables questions out before anyone realises I haven't memorised them.

The beginning of my journey out of times-tables-embarrassment-land was when I realised that my dad, at random moments during the day, in an attempt to keep the practice up, would only ever ask me what 6x6 was. So I learnt 6x6 (it's 36 - see, told you I'd learnt it). I soon realised that if I knew that then I could work out 6x7 really quickly.

The next step of my journey was my realisation, in secondary school, that if a teacher tried to get me to learn a method without explaining how and why it was working, then I wouldn't be able to do it. I had to understand the mechanics of the mathematical process in order to be able to solve problems. As my teacher took the time to model processes in a way that I understood them, I began to improve in maths. I started to enjoy it too. In fact, I started to think mathematically, could problem solve, reason and I sure was getting fluent. Recognise those three terms? Yes, the aims of the National Curriculum. If I had only learnt by heart the formula for finding the area of a triangle without understanding why it worked then I'd have been far less fluent and would not have been able to problem solve or reason. So why are so many teachers hellbent on getting kids to memorise stuff like times tables?

OK, if a child can memorise them then great, but teachers beware, I truly believe there are kids out there in year 5 right now who will be better supported this year if you teach them some tricks and tips so that instead of rapid recall, they can do rapid work out of tables. Take it from someone who knows.

Here are a few tips and tricks for how you can help those children once you've identified who they are (probably by giving them one of the hundreds of times table check practise tests that will appear online by the time the month is through):
  • Find out which tables they have learnt by heart - the majority of children will definitely have 2s, 5s and 10s.
  • Assuming children know 1s, 2s, 5s and 10s they already have good reference points for other tables. 3s and 4s could be taught using manipulatives such as Numicon shapes or cubes (or you can get really creative - Ikea's dogs' bums coat hooks are fun for 3s) to reinforce what is happening when multiplying 3 and 4.
  • When learning 4s and 8s make links back to 2 times tables. Lots of simple investigation opportunities here too i.e. Which times tables does the number 16 appear in? If the kids can make these connections themselves they will be more likely to learn skills that they can apply in a test situation.
  • Similarly link 3s and 6s together. Later they can be linked to 9s and 12s.
  • Teach 9s using the finger trick. Make sure children have identified the pattern in the answers: the digits in the answers add to 9 - do investigation so that they find this out for themselves.
  • Teach 11s by looking at the pattern in the answers. 10x11, 11x11 and 12x11 might be a bit more difficult so these might need to be learnt by heart - reducing the number of answers that need to be learned by heart is still helpful.
  • This might sound totally ridiculous... OK, it absolutely will, but Weetabix taught me how to work out my 12 times tables quickly. I know the pack sizes.  Each tube inside a box contains 12 Weetabix. You can get boxes of 12, 24, 48, 72. Help the kids tap into outlandish methods like this - maths in real life will be a saviour to many. So many kids need to know why maths is important and relevant to them SO THAT they can begin to understand it.
  • Your children probably are capable of retaining a few facts. I could always remember 6x6 which inspired me to learn my square numbers. Mathematically square numbers are interesting and are more likely to stick in the head (nice links to actual squares in geometry too as a model). Once you've learned square numbers the world is your oyster, especially if you know the square of 6, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12. You can use those as a reference point and quickly add or take from them.
  • Many children will be able to get a feel for which numbers sound like correct answers and which don't. Some work on what a prime number is might help - children will learn to avoid 17 as an answer in a tables test because it doesn't sound right. They will begin to know that 56 and 42 do appear somewhere - this gives them a reference point to check their answers by. 
  • I use the idea of The Hard Tables. This reduces the number of times tables that children have to really worry about in year 5 and 6. The Hard Tables (even the name shows a child who struggles to memorise them that you understand their plight) are basically any problem (beginning at 6x6) above the square roots of square numbers i.e. 6x6, 7x6, 8x6, 9x6 and 12x6 (most children will know 10x6 and 11x6)
  • Give the children tests where you model a thought process e.g. "The question is 8x7. So think of your square numbers: 7x7 is 49 so you need another lot of 7. 49 add 7 is... is your answer one of those numbers that we know is an answer in the times tables? Does it sound right?"
Put me in front of the nation and ask me a times table question and I'll answer it right away. Not because I know everything up to 12x12 by heart but because I will THINK MATHEMATICALLY about the answer. I will demonstrate fluency as I link areas of my mathematical understanding together. I will demonstrate, invisibly, my ability to problem solve and reason. I will demonstrate that I 'know' my times tables without actually ever having memorised them all. I will be using one or two of the above strategies to get to answer. It will take me a fraction of time longer than someone who has memorised the answer, but out of the two of us, I'll be the one demonstrating better mathematical thinking.

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