The black dot in the white square

When I was training to teach, one of the techniques I was taught was to remember the black dot in the white square. In teacher training terms, the black dot represented the disruptive, naughty or badly behaved student in the class. When you look at the class, the temptation for the teacher is to focus on that badly behaved student, and not spend enough time and attention on the white square, which represents all the other well-behaved, hard-working, positive students in the room. Of course, poor behaviour needs to be dealt with, but it’s far better to reinforce and celebrate the vast majority of students who are doing exactly what they should. Far better to be emphasising the positives by saying “thank you for listening, well done for being ready to learn, thank you for putting your hand up and waiting,” than to be constantly nagging at the negatives.

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The black dot in the white square: our attention is drawn to the negative (the black dot) at the expense of recognising the positive (the white square). Image via TeacherHead

I have used this technique throughout my teaching, always seeking to accentuate the positive and ensure that those who are doing the right thing get more attention and time than those who are doing the wrong thing. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

More recently, I have been thinking about the tendency to focus on the black dot and forget the white square beyond teaching. When something goes wrong, it’s easy and tempting to fixate on that blemish or blot and see it as the whole story, to feel that everything is bad just because of that one thing that hasn’t gone to plan. At times like these, I remember that was seems like a catastrophe is just a black dot in the white square, and take a step back. I look around at all the many, many things that are going right; the positives, the successes and the promise.

Although that black dot is still there, still frustrating, still upsetting, it is in perspective – it isn’t the whole story. One problem, or even a series of them, doesn’t define the whole; there is always something to celebrate.

Teaching: every lesson shapes a life

Every year the Department for Education puts out a video to promote careers in teaching. This year’s is something special: take a couple of minutes to watch it below.

Today, 5th October, is World Teachers’ Day – a day to mark the achievements of the teaching profession and reflect on ways to overcome the challenges the profession faces. I’ve been a teacher for 21 years, and I can honestly say that I love my job. The video captures many of the reasons why.

Teaching is a team sport

The video perfectly captures the fact that so many adults help to shape and guide young people on their journeys, but that they make the choices and decisions for themselves. It shows how the support of a parent at home – proud of the student’s achievements, supportive when things go wrong, and working in partnership with the school – sets the young person on the path to success.

Building the tower of education

The video also shows how education is like a tower of wooden blocks in the game of Jenga. Each layer, each lesson, each year builds on the one before. Some parts of the tower are trickier than others, and when blocks are missing the whole thing can wobble. But with care, patience and a steady hand, the structure can soar to great heights.

The power of belief

When the girl in the video’s confidence is shaken, when things go wrong, it is the adults around her saying and showing that they believe in her that sets her back on track. There is that moment at around 1:05 when she sits down to take an exam, when the teacher’s look says: “You’re on your own now, but I know you can do this.” I have given students that look hundreds – thousands! – of times in my career, when they repay the investment we have made in them through their triumphs and successes, big and small. By believing in them, we can help them to believe in themselves. What a privilege it is to be a teacher.

Thank a teacher

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We have all had teachers who have had an impact and helped to shape our future lives. They may have inspired us; they may have believed in us; they may have been there for us when nobody else was; they may have been the one who never gave up on us. Mine was Mrs Chamberlain, who taught me in primary school, and made me believe that I could learn anything I wanted to. I’ve never looked back! When I qualified as a teacher, I wrote to Mrs Chamberlain to thank her for inspiring me – she had no idea she had made such an impression!

If you’d like to thank a teacher for helping you, you can use the Teaching Awards website to record your thanks. The Teaching Awards will then send that teacher a “Thank You” card on your behalf – completely free of charge.

Get into teaching

Churchill Academy & Sixth Form offers teacher training through University-linked courses and school-centred routes, including Schools Direct. Find out more on the “Train with us” page on the Academy’s website.

If you are interested in a career in teaching, the DfE’s Get Into Teaching site is a good place to start.

Training to teach

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Churchill Academy’s cohort of trainee teachers 2017

This week I’ve had the privilege of working with our newest cohort of trainee teachers, who have started their teaching practice placements with us. Training the next generation of teachers is a vital part of the work of the Academy, and our school community is enriched by the new ideas and energy that our trainees bring to us each year.

I always wanted to be a teacher. My Grandad, both parents, my cousin and my uncle are teachers; it’s our family trade! As a teenager I did summer jobs teaching music and drama on performing arts and activity camps, and I did work experience in local schools. I went straight into a PGCE (postgraduate certificate of education) from University. I promised myself that, if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d stop – but I loved it, and I’ve never looked back.

Even though I trained as a secondary English teacher, my course began with a two-week primary school experience. Where better to start than right at the beginning? I went to a primary school on the outskirts of Nottingham and worked with a mixed Year 5/6 class. I started with some small group work. I remember helping the class teacher hand-crank the Banda machine to get my worksheets off to do some technical accuracy work with a group of six hand-picked students. Here’s my crib sheet from my very first try at “proper teaching”:

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Hand-cranked Banda-machine worksheet from pre-photocopier days, in purple ink with red pen notes from my younger self!

And then, in the last days of the fortnight, it was time to take the whole class. I was going to get them to do some creative writing based on a piece of music. I cranked the Banda machine, I planned my lesson with the class teacher, I psyched myself up. Then, the class teacher stepped out. It was over to me.

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Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

I don’t remember much about the lesson, if I’m honest. What I do remember – what I’ll never forget – was the debrief with the teacher afterwards. “How do you think it went?” she asked, kindly. “It was okay…” I said, hesitantly. “And were you comfortable with the noise level?” she asked. A sure sign of a skilful teacher: giving me the opportunity to learn from failure and improve. Here’s what I wrote in my evaluation:

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Evaluation of my first lesson

“I learned that success does not come from rushing into things, but from taking things slowly.” The first lesson wasn’t brilliant, but the second was better. I learned, very early on, that it’s okay not to get something perfectly right first time, provided you learn from it and do better the next time. This has stayed with me to this day.

My primary school experience journal ended with a series of reflection tasks. The final question was: “How do you now see yourself as a beginning teacher?” Here’s what I wrote:

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How I saw myself, as a beginning teacher, in 1996

“Ahead of me now I see a lot of hard work; an almost infeasible amount. However, my work with LF has given me a set of goals, and another role model to emulate, and my enjoyment of the experience has proved that no matter how high the mountains of work, the reward of a child proud of his or her success or achievement makes it all worthwhile.”

Nothing has really changed since then: there is still nothing better than seeing a student proud of what they’ve achieved. I’m quite envious of our new trainees: they have so much to look forward to.

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If you’re thinking of a career in teaching, there a lots of ways to get into the profession. We run School Experience Days at Churchill where you can find out what it’s like to be in the classroom, and learn more about routes into teaching. For more details, see the “Train with us” page on the Academy website.

Alternatively, the Get Into Teaching website gives all the information you need about training to teach. There is a free Get into Teaching event in Bath on Saturday 11th November 2017, where colleagues from Churchill and a range of local providers will be on hand to answer any questions about teaching or teacher training. Click here to register.

New Faces

We’re into the swing of the new school year now – the summer holidays seem like a long time ago! – and the new faces of our Year 7 students are already familiar as they approach their lessons with confidence and enthusiasm. But our Year 7s aren’t the only new faces at Churchill this September: we also welcome a fantastic group of new staff!

When I was training to be a Headteacher, I was given a lot of advice about how to improve and maintain high standards in schools. In one particularly memorable document, the following piece of advice was number one:

“The most important thing the Headteacher does is to find, recruit, develop and retain great teachers. You can’t play like Barcelona if you’ve got players from Brentwood.”

I’m sure that no disrespect was meant to Brentwood in that Headteacher’s advice, but it stuck with me! For Churchill to continue to be a great school, and to continue to go from strength to strength, the quality of the teaching needs to be the best it can be in every classroom, every day. That teaching needs to be underpinned by exceptional support staff in every role across the Academy. I am very fortunate to have inherited a school already packed with dedicated, highly skilled professionals doing a fantastic job with the students, and I am thrilled that this year’s new recruits have added to that strength.

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Some of our new staff at the “meet the Governors” event this week

It is especially gratifying to have such fantastic staff joining us at a time when teacher recruitment around the country is very challenging. I know of many schools – including some locally – with unfilled vacancies in key teaching posts being covered by non-specialists or temporary staff. Our reputation and the quality of our offer here at Churchill has meant that we have filled every teaching post with subject specialists, experts in their field, and fantastic teachers to boot! And our support staff has been strengthened by the recruitment of experienced, dedicated staff who have added to our capacity to ensure our students are able to learn to the best of their ability.

This year we are joined by:

  • Jon Bevan (Teacher of Geography)
  • Harry Church (Teacher of History and Politics)
  • Owen Davis (Teacher of Psychology and Sociology)
  • Joanne Dignum (Teaching Assistant)
  • Eric Evans (Teacher of Physics)
  • Chloe Harvey (Teacher of PE)
  • Lizzie Hudson (School Administrator)
  • Alison Innalls (Head of RE)
  • Maire McNeil (Stuart House Mentor)
  • James McWilliam Woods (Teacher of Maths)
  • Victoria Piper (Head of Maths)
  • Jacqueline Sims (Teacher of Modern Languages)
  • Jeff Spencer (Teacher of Music)
  • Adam Taylor (Teaching Assistant)
  • James White (Performance Technician)

After the Governors met with the new staff this week, the chair of our Finance Committee sought me out to tell me how impressed he was by their energy, positivity and enthusiasm, and he remarked on how lucky our students were to have these people working with them. I couldn’t agree more! So welcome to all the new staff joining us this September. We’re thrilled to have you here, and we’re very excited about all that you have to offer the students. I hope you enjoy your time at Churchill as much as me!