Archive | November, 2015

Teacher Well Being

26 Nov
Bored woman writing immensely long essay.

Bored woman writing immensely long essay.

At this time of year there has been a lot of discussion about workload in teaching. As we consider this we must think about teacher wellbeing. Indeed having a well-being goal is important. ‘What wellbeing promise will you make to yourself for 2016?’

My promise (along with the usual hope to run and cycle more, eat less junk) is to try and spend more of my time with my family. Movie night on a Friday is often an important time with my daughter. In this age of teacher burn out it is important to get our priorities right. I will let you know in twelve months time if it worked for me. What is your well-being goal for 2016?

The Books We Read

16 Nov
'You don't understand this letter? It means that your reading comprehension skills are under par. You will have to enroll in remedial courses.'

‘You don’t understand this letter? It means that your reading comprehension skills are under par. You will have to enroll in remedial courses.’

I grew up in a house of readers.  Everyone was always reading and we had a house full of books.  My own house today reflect this. For one, I need very precise conditions to sustain reading for any length of time – usually holidays when there’s nothing to distract me and I can spend time sitting up.  Reading in bed doesn’t work for me. I can’t read in the slightest reclining position – I just fall asleep. It’s a major handicap. When I go to bed I know I’ll be asleep within 30 seconds.  That can be quite a blessing but it doesn’t give a book much hope.

However, the main reason is that I’ve been a fussy reader.  I’m not prepared to waste time on a mediocre read – some contrived and convoluted story with exaggerated plots and characters or endless descriptions of the scenery.  The time also has to be right when I read a book. It was only this year I was in the right “space” to read Pillars of the Earth.

Every book I pick up is a potential friend.  I spent hours looking across the book shelves searching for inspiration.  Sometimes I preferred reading the encyclopaedia, the Guinness Book of Records and all Asterix books or any sports books.  I also dipped into plays – punchy and short!  We had a collection of Listeners that I enjoyed.  It’s sad to say that I can’t really remember any of the books I read during my school years though– except the ones we did for School Cert and Bursary.

For me – and I won’t be alone -reading at school was really very important.  It meant that I did actually have to read.  I remember reading The Ancient Mariner, we studied Twelfth Night.  We also read Wuthering Heiights.  The teacher played an important role in making them seem both exciting and important in some way.  The selection at school texts seems pretty bizarre to me – it did then and it does now: They were often a real drag.  Steinbeck was a rare treat. Thankfully we did Macbeth which we all loved.  Best of all, by far, was Day of the Triffids. Punchy and potent.  Plus there was a great TV series to go with it. This was me.

Things We Regret Saying

14 Nov


When I was a new teacher I occasionally said things to students that I later regretted. In the last few years, I have witnessed or heard teachers say additional regretful things to students. I must admit I still do it. Don’t we all.
1. “You have potential but don’t use it.”
Students feel insulted when they hear this, and while some accept it as a challenge to do better, more lose their motivation to care. Instead, say in a caring way, “How can I help you reach your full potential?”
2. “I’m disappointed in you.”
Of course we occasionally are disappointed in things that our students do. In addition, the result of openly expressing that disappointment depends as much on the way we say it as the words we use. But students have told me that they hate hearing a teacher say this. The problem with this saying is that it looks to the past. The alternative might be more like, “What do you think you can do to make a more helpful decision the next time you are in a similar situation?”
3. “What did you say?”
This is the challenge that some teachers might throw down when walking away from a student after a private discussion about behavior and hearing that student whisper something. “What did you say?” is just bait for escalation. Do you really want to know what was whispered? It’s better to ignore that unheard comeback and move on. You don’t always need to have the last word.
4. “It’s against the rules.”
What? Yes I have said this!!!!!! Think of the progress that would not have been made if we all kept to the rules.  Often there are many behaviours from which people can choose in order to solve a problem. Some may be within the rules. Try saying this instead: “Let me see if there’s a way to meet your need within the rules.”
5. “Your brother/sister was better than you.”
Never compare siblings or anyone else in a positive or negative way about anything. Comparisons can only lead to trouble regardless of which side of the coin the student is.

Perhaps we can all think not only as teachers before we speak next.

Leadership Success: How To?

14 Nov


I have been thinking a great deal about success in this area. I think it comes down to a few key principles and this is an attempt to capture the essence:

Purpose: All organisations are essentially collections of individuals with their own personal values and goals. The role of leaders is to try to create the maximum alignment for those values and goals so that everyone pulls in the same direction to the greatest extent. Really strong teachers tend to have strong views about education, about teaching and learning and about relationships with students; they have an intrinsic sense of purpose. However, it doesn’t work for them or the school if they are fighting against the flow; you want them with you, not against you. This requires either a clear, inspiring vision that they buy into, or, more probably, it requires a process that involves them in shaping the vision in the first place. It’s demotivating in the extreme to be asked to work towards goals you don’t believe in; in fact it doesn’t work at all. So, the question is: am I doing enough to forge a sense of common purpose amongst the key drivers in my school? Are we as closely aligned in our goals as we can be?

Challenge: Talented people thrive in a high-demand environment. Great teachers who drive students towards ever higher standards, expect standards to be high all around them. They are usually demanding of themselves and of others; rightly so. This means you have to expect the challenge to be a two-way process; you push me; I’ll push you and we’ll do a better job. That means we need mechanisms that actively seek out opinions and ideas that would lead to improvement. It is also means that we should do all we can to sustain a culture where rigour, high quality and doing things properly pervades. It is acceptable to be very demanding of people if they too can be demanding of you. (Does the converse need spelling out?)

Autonomy: Fundamentally, if we think we’re doing a decent job (and if we’re not), we like to be left alone. Autonomy is the thing teachers crave. I know what I’m doing, let me get on with it. Don’t tell me what to do because I’ve already got enough ideas of my own… It is the great joy of teaching; the freedom to experiment, to perform, to follow your whims, to be yourself…. and those great teachers are no different. Any process that restricts, inhibits, limits, deflects, blocks, restrains… for no reason other than a perceived need for conformity and uniformity or purely to satisfy an accountability measure…. is likely to frustrate great teachers. Conversely, if they feel at liberty to make choices, to do their own thing, to go way off piste whenever they want to….they’ll be flourishing. Real autonomy isn’t automatic; it emerges from a culture where there is a high level of confidence, professional respect and mutual trust. Question: where are we along the control-autonomy axis? How much more freedom could I give teachers within the context of my school?

Yeah But…..

6 Nov


Who is the person on your staff you can predict will say, “Yeah But?” We can all picture that person. When the principal says, “We are going to implement a new system to support our gifted students” this teacher responds on que, “Yeah But!” When the assistant principal says “I would like to send you to a national conference for social studies teachers” – the teacher replies, “Yeah But…..I am having a guest speaker that week.” As a member of the SLT I get frustrated with the “Yeah But” response. However, there are teacher who respond, “Yeah But!” and have added value  with “I believe we could support more students if we…….”
A teacher who challenges the process and forces everyone in the organization to think is serving as a teacher leader. One of the most popular leadership books over the past 25 years is a book titled, The Leadership Challenge (1987). Kouzes and Posner (1997) wrote that leaders Challenge the Process. A teacher who challenges the process, may provide valuable input for school improvement or implementing school programmes.
Schelchty (1993) wrote an article on teacher leadership titled and noted  “Staff known as settlers need to know what is expected of them and where they are going” (Schlechty, 1993). Who are the Settlers on your staff? A settler could be a strong teacher leader, but they may resist until the details of the program are clear and they feel confident that this will not become the “Flavor-of-the Month” initiative. You  can identify the settlers on staff and seek out their input prior to making an announcement about a new program or goal. With the input of a settler, the principal can have a deeper understanding of what reservations staff members have and can develop FAQs, offer additional information, or adjust the implementation timeline.
Many principals view the person who asks questions as a challenging teacher leader and may not value the challenges as much as the teacher who is willing to say yes and move forward with any project or school improvement goal. Indeed these people can effect change more than you think.

The conditions for great teachers to thrive

2 Nov


As curriculum leaders we must create conditions for our students and teachers to thrive. Here are some thoughts on getting your team to thrive.

Growth: Great teachers are learners; they want to move forward. Usually, they have mastered the key skills in teaching and are looking to refine their practice or explore innovations of various forms. They want the space and time to grow professionally. However, this has to be seen in the context where all teachers are working collaboratively, forming larger groups where the levels of expertise will vary. This is the challenge.

Recognition: This is a key motivating factor but we are not talking simply about financial reward. Maximising pay is important but salary increments never do justice to the additional value really great teachers deliver. It is also often the case that very strong teachers are self-effacing, don’t want a fuss made and don’t court public affirmation. What matters is often simply that their work is recognised, acknowledged, appreciated, and not taken for granted. Beyond the rigmarole of formal lesson observations and examination postmortems, there needs to be a culture where excellence is acknowledged on an individual basis and celebrated publicly. This isn’t to create divisions – it is to identify where we have role models, to have exemplars for others to follow and, crucially, to ensure that the exponents of great teaching get the recognition they deserve. If you have a lot of teachers like this, then you need to apply this to them all. Do I do enough in this area? No… but I must and will do more!

Care: Finally, it is important to create a culture where teachers are looked after as people. Great teachers often have a touch of the ’tis but a scratch’ attitude. High performing people are not immune to stress or the usual array of health or personal set-backs. I’m a great believer that you get more from everyone by being conspicuously supportive with personal issues. Whether this is taking a flexible approach to part-time working, returning from maternity leave, enabling people to see children in their primary assembly or graduation, helping people to look after elderly parents or simply get to the bank.. it pays to be generous and flexible. I always say ‘family first’ because that is how I feel about my own. If you want people to give their all, they need to feel that the trade-off is worthwhile; the community spirit fostered by a strong family-first approach, nurtures loyalty, commitment and the determination to strive for success.

Faith Formation or Religious Education/Studies

2 Nov


“How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news” (Rom 10:15-17).

We teach in a time where Religious Studies is rigorously assessed by Achievement Standards recognised by NZQA. Religious Studies is an approved subject for University Entrance. Teachers of the subject are working on textbooks, resources and developing pedagogical ideas as in any other curriculum area.  Still we may ask ourselves what is the purpose of Religious Studies/Education in schools exactly? Is it religious education or is it faith formation?

At a secondary level in New Zealand the perception of this subject is highly topical. With its non-optional nature in Catholic schools, teachers there still face the continual justification of why we spent so much teaching time on Religious Studies/Education in the classroom.

I genuinely believe that teachers of Religious Studies/Education teachers in a Catholic school should be leading teaching practice, delivering the most engaging and relevant lessons to raise perception. My observations indicate Religious Education/Studies practitioners are as good as any in any curriculum area. This is despite the nationwide shortage of subject specific specialists and the fact professional development budgets will not allow for the support of preservice and ongoing training. Being a teacher of Religious Education/Studies does not make you immune from criticism from parents who want a good Catholic education, but are perhaps not so keen on the time spent on the subject, be it Religious Education/Studies or the more senior Religious Education/Studies.

Since robust assessment has become part of Religious Education/Studies in Catholic schools there has been a great deal of discussion on the question whether Religious Education/Studies is the academic study of religion or the formation of personal faith? Perhaps it can be both.

Our curriculum, ‘Understanding Faith’, provides a convergence of the study of religion and the development of faith which will hopefully produce young men and women who are able to think more critically, are religiously literate and able to be more mindful contributors to our Church and society going forward. We must be educating the whole child and it is vital they leave our schools with the qualifications that will set them up for fulfilled life.

At the centre of our schools is faith formation. There is no doubt that faith formation takes place in the Catholic school but where it should primarily take place in the classroom or beyond is up for discussion. Whether that this is the primary role of Religious Studies/Education is the issue I will explore here.

It is a concern to hear some students disengaged in Religious Education/Studies and as a result have become disconnected from their faith. If we cannot teach faith beyond what’s perceived to be relevant and engaging, we do have a real problem. If we cannot make our faith interesting and relevant, at a time where are Church has never been so relevant, what hope is there for the future of our Church?

Religious Education/Studies is an endeavour in sharing faith and it is an intentional activity to develop students who are religiously literate and conversant. There seems to be a close connection between classroom Religious Education/Studies and catechesis. As a classroom teacher who observes that the Religious Education/Studies program has the potential to develop faith in students and it is most effective when it is grounded in a sharing of faith between teacher and student.

There are limits to the ways in which Religious Education/Studies can develop the faith of students. The curriculums capacity to communicate and develop faith of students is much less if it does not relate to the other parts of a student’s life experience. “Understanding Faith” sets out to witness and to teach the Catholic message and to develop in all students’ religious values, attitudes, knowledge and skills. The program does not depend on the faith of the student but it may contribute to faith formation.

It is important to acknowledge that in the Religious Education/Studies classroom aims to understand and appreciate the tradition of the Catholic Church. Complementary to and equally important to this is the experience of liturgy, prayer, retreat and participation in other forms evangelisation.

The “Understand Faith” Curriculum document has an instructive prominence and it recognises that one cannot become personally attuned a religion without first learning something about it. Learning and journey must be part of the student’s experience. Our curriculum links the classroom with the faith community which respects each individual’s faith journey, and the realities of the classroom. As an educator I believe the Catholic school should provide a comprehensive education in faith which will help young people become well informed about the Catholic traditions and its position on current issues. The role of Religious Studies is somewhat different. It does complement this but it is fundamentally an academic study of Religion. The Catholic faith is just one of these. Religious Studies is the study of a Religion from the outside, that is, not always with an emphasis on faith development.

In the Catholic tradition the term Catechesis has been commonly used to mean “Catholic Religious Education/Studies.” Catechesis seems to involve both theological knowledge as well as communication of faith vision. Religious Education/Studies or Catechesis links religious knowledge with faith. Faith is a personal relationship with God. We are called by God. It is a covenant relationship. God dwells among his people and his people live in his presence.

Catechesis cannot instil faith but only awaken, nourish and develop what is already there. Faith is concerned with developing a relationship with God. As teachers we walk beside students in their faith journey both challenging and nurturing them. Religious Educators do not transmit “faith” but would transmit particular interpretations or understandings of faith. Faith is a gift of grace and a personal response to Gods call it cannot be taught. As teachers we cannot force faith on our students through, coercion, indoctrination or manipulation. All we can do is to invite students to build their faith through instruction through example and experience. We cannot choose faith for students but can only give them the freedom to examine, question and reflect, and claim their personal belief.

Faith needs to be linked to everyday life and should not be seen as something isolated to going to Mass nor activities in class. Faith formation in the Catholic school is not just in the classroom, it would be naive to claim so. There needs to be evangelisation taking place throughout the school, at the parish level. The school can only reinforce what is taking place in the home. The Catholic school is concerned with integration of faith and life. It should be evident then that you cannot teach faith any more than you can teach love for a spouse. It has to be a lived experience creating an atmosphere in which students can develop their own faith each in his or her individual way.

During adolescence a young person’s main struggle is to achieve a personal identity or a positive sense of self and this is connected to the development of faith. Complications with faith tend to be part of a broader search for meaning in their lives and that search for positive self-worth. Faith is a dynamic fluid process. The development of faith at a personal level requires a mature sense of self and this occurs at different stages for each person. Watershed moments in this journey may take place outside of the four walls of a classroom.

Religious Education/Studies could be thought of as sharing ones faith with another person. Faith dictates lifestyle. It is a life style that is filled with both emotional and intellectual content.  Some school special character events such as social justice events, retreats and liturgies seek to develop and give a student an opportunity to express personal faith while the classroom curriculum is more concerned with delivering information although this still fosters faith development. The aim of the Religious Education/Studies curriculum is to create in student’s religious literacy, personal autonomy and the ability to be critical. These are all required in order for an individual to develop a mature adult faith.

As educators we have a role to make students faith a living conscious and active thing. Faith is a gift, a personal encounter or a response to Gods call. For this reason Religious Education/Studies should be carried out in an atmosphere that complements this. For this to happen only in the classroom is not an ideal. The whole faith process is much larger than what we do or what we teach, it wrapped in the ministry of God’s love and in the free and personal response that people make to that love. We need to create an atmosphere of warmth and relational trust, an environment suitable for listening to Gods call. We need to allow our students the freedom to search, to question and to express one’s own point of view. Faith needs to be intrinsic to our everyday life. Faith formation takes place not only but primarily outside the classroom. Students grow by being part of a faith community and the activities that complement this.

Our curriculum aims to religiously educate students so that they may grow and understand faith. Its effectiveness can only be judged by whether the students can demonstrate religious literacy and a sense of what religion contributes to the human condition. By applying critical thinking to religious issues in the school environment students will develop a mature faith and greater potential to effect change. I believe that our children will have faith if we have faith and are faithful. If we strive to keep our sense of community and keep our identity as a Catholic community then our children will stay with us and grow with us in faith and love. It is the job of us all of to encourage the spread of the Good News not just those teachers in the classroom.


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