Sunday, 4 September 2016

Teachers: 3 Powerful Lessons That You Learn From Teaching

Teachers, I know that sometimes people who do not work in the education system make you feel unappreciated after you put so much time and effort into helping your students learn as much as they can from their schooling, while you, in turn, learn much from the experience, developing your skills set. As a teacher with more than 25 years in the classroom, I understand exactly how you feel.
Dr. Paul Semendinger, an educator, understands the need that teachers have to be appreciated and he shares this understanding in an article on Edutopia titled, What makes a teacher special? 

Dr. Semendinger in a previous role as principal of a school asked students and other stakeholders of his school to nominate a teacher for the award of teacher of the week, citing a reason for nominating the teacher. The students' responses clearly show the central place that teachers have in their lives.

Here are some of the reasons the students gave for nominating a teacher: the teacher is 'kind and helpful'; the teacher is 'a good teacher'; the teacher encourages them; the teacher respects them; the teacher is patient with them and the teacher involves them in class activities.
Dr. Semendinger concludes his article by saying that if you want answers to the question that he has posed, you should ask a child. This is good advice, as students interact with you daily and have opinions about the quality of this interaction.
Andrew Simmons, another educator, voices some of the benefits and pitfalls of being a teacher in an article titled, 7 things I wish people understood about being a teacher. In this article on, which I can't do full justice to in this space, Simmons provides "critics" with the following insights from his reflections on his career to date.
He tells us that teaching has positively influenced him by making him "smarter" and "a better person"; that "teachers act like teenagers" and not in a good way; that the summer break is not a real break for teachers because they spend much of their summer preparing for the new school year; that the “cult of the superteacher” needs to be abolished - that is, the teacher being burdened or burdening himself with too much work which does not lead to effectiveness, and he tells us that administrators need to be smart in implementing government policy (Common Core) as not to put pressure on teachers and demotivate them.

Dr. Paul Semendinger and Andrew Simmons share powerful lessons with you in their articles. Here are 3 of these lessons:
  • Students are teachers – they have much to teach you about yourself and your practice. Learn the lessons that they teach!

  • Reflecting makes sense – When you reflect on your job – what it is, what you are doing and how you are doing it – you'll find many nuggets of wisdom to help you to keep on improving your practice, thus being able to meet the learning needs of your students and gain continued satisfaction from the job.

  •  You are appreciated – If you stress about all the negative comments leveled at you as a teacher, teachers generally and the teaching profession as a whole, you are setting yourself up to becoming ill, unhappy and ineffective at your job. Students come to school with a number of needs of which you are oftentimes unaware, but when you make them feel good by treating them well, they treasure your positive actions toward them, and they also treasure you.

Starting today, you need to begin to look at the big picture – the environment, locally nationally and internationally, in which you work – and reflect on your practice with the aim of celebrating the good and resolving to take steps to improve, to the best of your ability and within the constraints under which you work, your efforts to continue to meet the learning needs of your students, in spite of the negative talk about you and your profession that you hear.

I am a veteran educator and have authored two books, Investing in our success: A glimpse into our world and The Teacher's Gift in which I explored the search for success and teaching respectively. 

I love learning and have been auditing courses on the Coursera online Platform. If you are interested in learning about Social Media, I highly recommend the Social Media Marketing Specialization offered by Northwestern University and delivered by Professor Randy Hlavac.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @JanetteBFuller

Friday, 22 July 2016

Teachers: 4 Tips to Help you Maintain your mental health in your teaching job

The teacher is sometimes maligned, a few times for good reasons, but most of the times the teacher is unjustly targeted because those persons who cast aspersions at the teacher and the job of teaching are not fully aware of the complexities of the job and the challenges that the teacher faces in navigating these complexities.

Having been a teacher for more than twenty five years and having taught in a number of countries, I have garnered some insights into the nature of the teacher and the job of teaching. I have shared these insights in a new book, The Teacher's Gift.

One facet of the teacher that I have explored in a number of chapters in this book is her mental health and how she can maintain her mental health, in spite of all the challenges that she has to navigate on the job. Here is one chapter of this book.

Maintaining her mental health 3 – tempering her expectations of her students
One way that the teacher maintains her mental health is by tempering her expectations of her students. The teacher realises that teaching is a stressful job, but only if she allows it to be. She is aware of all the negative effects that stress can have on her life. So, she takes steps to minimise the amount of stress that she allows into her life because she refuses to allow stress to steal her sanity. The teacher therefore is committed to maintaining her mental health. To do this, she accepts the following:

1. That her students are different in many respects
From her experiences of teaching students, from her reading of educational material about the educational needs of students, from her research of educational issues and from the research of eminent educational researchers (Psychologists among other researchers), the teacher understands that her students will achieve different levels of academic success because they have different abilities, different aptitudes, different drives and different temperaments. She does her best to help all of her students achieve excellence, but she does not take it personally when only some of them do. She understands that she needs to temper her expectations of her students since they are different in so many ways, ways which do influence their learning.

2. That she needs to keep frustration at bay.
The teacher learns that she has to keep frustration at bay. She does this by not judging her students’ performance according to another student’s excellent performance or according to her level of performance during her own academic journey. For example, the teacher does not get frustrated when she discovers that her students cannot read, or that they are reading below their grade level and tells them that when she was their age, she already knew how to read and was reading “a”, “b” and “c”.
Instead, when she recognises her students’ weaknesses, she devises interventions or works with others. For example, she may decide to work with the reading teacher to help her students to elevate their reading level. The teacher seizes every opportunity to help her very weak students to transition into “ready” learners, learners who possess the basic tools to take advantage of schooling.
Again, the teacher realises that in spite of all her best efforts, she will not reach all of her students in the way that she wants to reach them. But the teacher realises that being perpetually frustrated about her lot to teach, for example, slow students will cause her much stress, which in turn will negatively impact her mental state.

The teacher does her best to tailor her lessons and the presentation of her lessons in such a way that she reaches every student at their level. Afterwards, she accepts that when she assesses her students' learning, the grades that they get may fall along the spectrum from grades A to F, or in some other category that the school designates. Again, she does not take this personally and does not spend sleepless nights agonising over this outcome.

She knows that although she has a wide and deep body of knowledge from which she draws in teaching her students, there are factors outside of her control: the ability of her students; their willingness to cooperate in the business of learning; the quality of the physical resources to which she has access; the ability of parents to assist their children with learning in the home; the material and emotional resources to which the students have access in the home, among a longer list of other factors which influence the learning of her students.
In spite of being aware of the factors that negatively impact the learning of some of her students, the teacher always does her best to help them master the prescribed curriculum and much more, to manage their emotional stress and, sometimes, when she can afford to, provide her students with material support.

After she has given generously of herself to her students, she goes home, takes care of her business, still takes care of her students’ business (she takes home students’ work), rests, gets up in the morning to do it all over again. And each day, she tries harder than the day before to effect learning in her students. And every day, she acknowledges the limitations of her efforts.

3. That children will be children
The teacher who teaches children maintains her mental health by recognising that children will be children, no matter what she does to constrain them. She accepts that children in a group are noisy. She knows that they easily get excited about what they deem to be exciting, fun or comic in their world. After all, she was a child once so she understands.

Knowing the nature of children, the teacher is not swift to take offence when they respond to her in unexpected ways. For example, she is not quick to get irritated when her students laugh in class. She knows that it does not usually take much to amuse children.

She knows that they may laugh if they find something she says in the course of her teaching the class to be funny. They may laugh and laugh.

She knows that they may laugh if they find something hilarious about the outfit that she is wearing one day, no matter how much she thinks that she has hit the spot with it. She knows that they may nudge each other and laugh.

She knows that they may laugh if in their minds, she reminds them of an animal, a cartoon character, something funny. She knows that they may share their observations among themselves and they may laugh.

She knows that one mischievous student may even decide to give her a nickname. She knows that they give other teachers names so why not her as well. The teacher knows that these nicknames may elicit smiles from her students when she is in their presence, probably at inappropriate times. She accepts this. She was once a child.

What she does, though, is to gently nudge her students back to attention and continues her lessons when they are obviously distracted from paying attention to her lesson by their own antics.
The teacher knows her purpose in the classroom. She understands human nature, having experienced the vagaries of it from she was a child and during her adulthood. So, she does not allow herself to be stressed by the goings-on of her students and she does not take their inattention during parts of her lessons personally. She works around it. Neither does she take herself too seriously. She learns to laugh with her students, albeit ironically at times.

4. That she should expect the unexpected
The teacher who teaches very young children, from the kindergarten level to students in at least grade 7 in junior high or high school, depending on the context in which she teaches, knows that many of her students see her as a parent figure in the classroom. Therefore, if one of her students in a rash of forgetfulness calls her “Mommy” in enquiring about something to which she has drawn his or her attention, the teacher knows that these things happen and reacts accordingly.

The teacher does not get irate, goes to complain to her colleagues about it, telling them that she is not the student's parent so the student should not call her “Mommy” or that she is nobody's parent, insisting that the children should call her, “Miss So and So”. She does not complain about what is wrong with children now-a-days and she does not malign their parents. More importantly, she does not snub the student in front of his/her peers. She becomes “Mommy” for that student, for that moment.

In addition to mistakenly calling her “Mommy”, the teacher knows that the likelihood exists that children will touch. She knows that sometimes some of her students will forget that they should not touch another person without that person's permission, as many children in some societies are being taught. When this happens, she reaches for the tolerance that she has worked hard to develop.

She is prepared for the unexpected. She understands that her students will not behave exactly as she wants them to behave. She accepts the idiosyncrasies of her students and she moves on.

The teacher tempers her expectations of her students. She hopes that they will all be “good” students but if they are not all “good” students, she accepts this. She remembers her job and she does it.

If you are interested in reading more of this book, you may do so here. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About the Author

I am an Educator with many years of experience in the teaching profession. I am also the author of two books, Investing in our success: A glimpse into our world and The Teacher's Gift. Look out for more titles as I am in the process of writing other books, exploring a myriad of issues in society. In addition, I blog about the art of writing and my books here and about issues in education here.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Education News from Europe (England's Education in the news)

OECD basic skills report makes grim reading by Brian Creese on the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) Blog

Brian Creese
After three years of deliberation, number crunching and further evidence-seeking, the OECD has published its report on the basic skills of adults in England based on the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey. It does not make for happy reading, and to save you the misery of trawling through its 110 pages, I thought you might like a brief summary. But you may want a stiff drink before you settle down and read this blog…

An estimated nine million adults of working age have low basic skills.
This is the number of working age adults OECD estimates have poor or very poor literacy and/or numeracy skills and puts England close to the bottom of the OECD rankings.

The particular concern for England is that while in other countries standards are improving, in England they are not. The performance of older age groups is as good if not better than the youngest, while in most countries younger cohorts have higher skills than their elders.

At every qualification level low literacy and numeracy skills are more common among young people in England than in most other OECD countries. And it should be stressed that these young people are not predominantly school dropouts or the unemployed, they are mostly in work.

In England one-third of those aged 16-19 have low basic skills.
Once again this puts England at or near the bottom of all OECD countries. The OECD suggest that it is not just getting more young people up to the grade C at GCSE that matters, as they think that those with GCSE at that grade still perform less well in basic skills than their equivalents in other OECD countries.

Indeed, our national obsession with qualifications may be partly to blame; our young people have gained more qualifications than ever before, but that has not translated into evidence of improved literacy and numeracy.

Around one in ten university graduates has low basic skills.
The survey suggests that 10% of undergraduates do not have level 2 skills in literacy and/or numeracy. They suggest that universities have not recognised the poor level of basic skills that new entrants actually have.

I’d like to say that I find this unbelievable but my experience of coaching applicants for PGCE courses to pass their required Numeracy Skills tests often left me bewildered. How does a graduate not actually know how to divide by three?

The OECD go on to suggest that universities should consider not graduating students with low basic skills, which would be a drastic solution.

Having berated the schools and higher education sectors, the report actually endorses the approach to adult education that has been researched and advocated by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) and companion organisations. They recommend concentrating on formative assessment, blended learning (mixing online and traditional study), contextualised approaches and family based programmes.

Despite being so depressing, it is hard to argue with these findings. I think we know from our own contacts and research that they are broadly correct.

Perhaps the one positive note is the evidence that young people in England do better once they enter the workforce, suggesting that work based courses and employer support can be effective at upskilling young employees.

The OECD recommendations are:
  • Priority should be given to early intervention to ensure young people have stronger basic skills.
  • Sustain reform efforts and increase basic skills standards for upper secondary education.
  • Divert unprepared university students and enhance basic skills tuition.
  • Improve transition from school to jobs by offering opportunities to upskill…. through good quality apprenticeships and traineeships.
  • Use evidence to support adult learning.
These are all sensible suggestions, but, the devil is in the detail.

Successive governments have prioritised early intervention to improve basic skills. However, if the OECD survey results are to be believed this appears to have failed to raise standards.

Similarly, the government cannot be faulted for advocating for apprenticeships; here the important phrase is ‘good quality’ and many in the sector are concerned about how they might deliver those.

The final recommendation, using evidence to support adult learning, may hopefully propel adult literacy and numeracy practice and pedagogy back onto the Government’s agenda.

After a long period of being ignored by government, that would certainly be a positive outcome arising from this depressing report.

Any thoughts on the findings of this OECD report as regards the state of basic skills in England and how does your country compare where basic skills are concerned? Please share your thoughts below.
Photo above courtesy of

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Improving School Leadership in Ten Easy Steps

Robert Frost, late American poet aptly said,  "education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self-confidence".

Recently, the news media in a society that will remain unnamed reported that a male school principal was in a fight with a female student. Witnesses, however, reported that there were actually no blows thrown by the principal, in spite of his best efforts to box the student into oblivion. It was a super human effort by those who restrained the principal to keep him in check, as for a moment, he let his mask slip - the mask of being a decent, educated man, in charge of his faculties and who weilded much power - and became the man that the environment in which he grew up moulded, a base human being like many of us who does not turn the other cheek in the face of provocation.

It would seem that the student does not respect anyone or anything. She has a reputation for being unruly, foul mouthed, aggressive,  uncooperative, among the other negative behaviours that one  can think of. The principal, it is said, not knowing the reputation of this student, scolded her for some infraction of the rules. Her response aroused the ire of the principal who sought to have her immediately removed from the school compound. What happened at this point is unclear but the principal must have physically tried to escort her from the premises when the student slapped or pushed him away from her. The principal in a rage attempted to retaliate but was forcefully restrained.

One can imagine the excitement among the student body, as many of them broke free from their classrooms to witness the spectacle.

How could this situation have been avoided? I'm going to present ten tips to principals to help them to manage fraught situations in their schools.

  1. Allow the persons tasked with their specific responsibilities to do their jobs. If you give them time to do their jobs and they do not deliver, intervene. Apparently, the person in charge of discipline was trying to reason with the student, having known of her temperament. The principal, however, expected that as soon as he ordered the student removed from the campus, it should have been done and took matters into his own hands when it seemed that his order was being ignored. We know how that turned out.
  2. Get to know your staff and students. They are the ones who have the power to ensure that your tenure at your school is a smooth one. This principal, it is said, thinks that he has all the power and everyone in his sphere must unquestioningly do his bidding. Ask him how that is working out for him.
  3. Give staff members responsibilities and be prepared to guide them in the fulfillment of their responsibilities. Don't ever think that your job is separate from that of the rest of the school and lock yourself away in your office, not welcoming any intrusion, because everybody should know their job and do it. Principals, you must make it your business to develop a sense of the big picture where your school is concerned and this means regularly liaising with your staff.
  4. Include your staff members in decision making and give the impression that their opinions matter. If you do not, you'll be swimming against the tide all the time. And we know how tiring that is.
  5. Respect all of your staff and students. They deserve as much respect as you expect to get from them, for no other reason than the fact that they are human beings with emotions just like you. So, remember to be cordial to them as you interact with them on and off the school's compound. Again, the consequences of continual disrespect are not pretty. Our principal who prompted this post should have much to say on this subject, that is, if he has learnt anything about the subject from his interactions in his school community so far.
  6. Regularly involve yourself in meditation exercises,  yoga is a good start. However, you may choose any meditation activity that you prefer. You need to constantly de-stress, release the build up of angst that you are likely to accumulate during the school day, especially if you are tasked with managing a school labeled as being difficult. If you do not find legitimate ways to release the stress, you will explode, usually at the most inappropriate time. Our principal is a case in point.
  7.  Reflect. You must reflect on your stewardship in progress. That is, during every day and at the end of every day, you must identify what is going well and what is not going well, based on the reactions of the people on whom you bounce your ideas, opinions, plans and strategies. And after identifying the strengths and weaknesses, you must act on them. You will seek to enhance your strengths and minimise your weaknesses by taking appropriate action.
  8.  Don't do the same aggravating thing over and over and expect to get a different result. This is what Einstein, without adding the word aggravating, called insanity. If your leadership does not engender support from your staff after a couple of years, do not continue to lead in the same fashion and expect that the same school community that has been resistant to your endeavours for the past two years will suddenly jump on board. Be prepared to modify your leadership style as you carry out your job, based on the reaction that you get from those whom you lead.
  9. Remember that leading involves action, the example that you set. You can't expect to lead others when you're passive, when you do not chart any course for your followers, when you are not there physically or mentally. Craft a plan with the help of your staff and other stakeholders, devise strategies with their help to realise the plan and actively guide the process. Your staff will begin to see you in a new positive light. Our principal, well...
  10.  Rid yourself of your narcissistic tendencies. Everything is not about you. Yes, you have worked hard to achieve your place in the world. Congratulations! However, lend a hand to others right under your nose who are also trying to find their place in the world, instead of viewing them as threats to your achievements.
There are other tips that I could share with you - school principals, school administrators or school managers - whatever label you accept - but I'll leave it at this. Members of society expect principled leadership from you, in spite of all the challenges in the environment in which you work. You have accepted the job. You are the leader.  It's your duty to find ways to manage any difficulty that may arise during your stewardship. Be innovative,  be creative, lead!

And carefully think of Robert Frost's words! To what extent do you agree with his observation?

Picture courtesy of