Don't Dis Ma Dialect

What fun we are having with dialects! It all started as part of the writing of our new resource Talk:Write, aimed at improving children’s speech and writing through talk. This is, of course, a very familiar area for us but we have so many new messages to reflect advances in research and the government’s agenda on Standard English.

It’s gratifying for us to see the government so focussed on things we have been saying for 20 years – that the way children talk (or don’t talk) affects their performance as writers across the whole spectrum of education. It’s a surprise, however, that they make it sound like a new discovery! My guru of 20 years for talk, Dr. Todd Risley, died in 2007 – sadly. He has just been reborn in national reports.

In pursuing our own research, we realised that this whole initiative for institutionalised Standard English across all primary schools could prove detrimental for parents and communities, and the way they speak. This drive for improving communication cannot be seen as a criticism for the way whole communities speak. Thus, we undertook an analysis of the main types of speech and language found in communities in the English-speaking world.

And so we addressed dialects!

Dialects evolved before the days of free movement within countries prior to the development of public transport, inexpensive transport systems and revolutions in industry that led to mass relocations and a huge growth in cities. Originally, there was little movement outside the home locality for most of the population and their language developed its own accent, grammatical structures and – often – vocabulary for daily use. Due to their isolation, the dialects of different localities were diverse and often difficult for outsiders to access or understand.

Today, many communities are integrated with people of different accents and dialects living and working together. Families are divided and living in different parts of their own countries and other countries. Since ‘Windrush’ West Indian patois has had a huge influence on street talk across the country. Street talk and patois are both forms of dialect, now enriched by a mingling with words and phrases from the daily chat of so many, diverse communities.

I was born the youngest of four children who all grew up and were educated in Yorkshire, yet my mother was from Shropshire and my father was from Northumberland. My mother monitored our speech fiercely, determined that we should not speak with a Yorkshire accent or dialect, yet she and her sister (who lived with us for some years) often spoke in broad ‘Salopian’ – laughing heartily as they did so. It was from them that I learnt to say, ‘Thar cans’t’na sing ser good as thar cudst’cost?’

I consciously developed a Yorkshire accent as a young teen, to ‘fit in’ with the huge street gang – ‘The Oakwood Gang’ – that dominated our locality in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. We were a law-abiding rabble of around 60 teenagers who were purely gathering to socialise and have fun, but the police clearly had complaints from people who felt threatened, and frequently circled us in their Ford Anglia police cars – driving us away from the clock tower and into the woodland. I spoke Yorkshire on the streets and Standard English at home.

In my professional life I have consciously kept my Yorkshire accent, being proud of my heritage. Speaking in Yorkshire does not mean that the speaker is not speaking in Standard English. The latter purely means talking with grammatically correctly structures. I do that – except when I consciously switch into dialect. Imagine my hilarity when I attended a course on writing, as a recently launched independent consultant, led by a secondary English specialist back in the early 2000s. She was in full flow – but I was bored as she was saying nothing new or innovative – when my sub-conscious suddenly tuned in to her saying: ‘… a fat old Yorkshire woman setting herself up as a writing consultant and she can’t even speak English properly!’ I did laugh – she should see me now if she thought I was old 15 years ago!

I introduced myself at lunchtime…

Every Sunday we post a word on Twitter and ask folk to contribute any dialect forms they know of – particularly things that their grandparents might have said. Most weeks we gratefully receive around 100 responses and my colleague then makes an attractive free resource for teachers that we post on the website. We are always struck, however, how dialect has now morphed into what we would call ‘street talk’, it is now rarely confined to one specific locality. We often receive the same word or close versions of it, from North and South and from East to West. For example – this week’s free resource focussed on the word ‘hungry’. We received ‘starvin’’ from Sussex and ‘stervin’ from the Scottish Borders; ‘clammed’ from the Black Country and ‘clammin’ from Tyneside; all tributes to the spread of populations across the land.

Who knows what this week’s word will be and what it will bring?

Us’ll soon see thar knows’t!

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Vocabulary - Research and Practice

I remember being irritated, ‘back in the day’, when – after several years of highly effective implementation of my work across four continents (people may remember it as Big Writing) that raised standards in both writing and reading significantly for many thousands of children – an academic wrote of my work that, ‘if practice is not underpinned by research it has no validity.’ What is consistent effective practice across primary schools of all demographic profiles, if not in itself empirical research?

So, what price research and the world of academia? Far be it from the fact that it underpins ‘best practice’, quite the opposite can sometimes be true. For a start, I have never read research into a seemingly ‘new’ educational approach or system that was not rooted in an approach or system that already existed in some schools. Thus, the research did not lead the practice, it reflected existing interesting and / or successful practice and then proved statistically that which was already proven by the outcomes in some progressive classrooms.

Furthermore, research can lead to distorted or false conclusions that may lead to wasted investment, mediocre practice and dumbing down of outcomes for many. At its worst, it can impede learning and progress for many children.

Consider the very short life of the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) of the 1960s, which led to a generation of children being unable to spell because so many found the transition from ITA to orthography (conventional spelling by each letter) and phonics so difficult. It advocated an approach to teaching vocabulary and initial writing that customised every word individually to its own, unique set of 45 phonetic codes. Learned ‘spelling’ then had to be ‘unlearned’ at age 7 and the reality of accurate orthography and phonics introduced. Many children never mastered the truth because their practise remained cluttered with ITA symbols and sounds. I know – I was there, teaching in a Year 3 class of children raised on it.

Let it not be thought that I don’t value research. I most certainly do. It gives a wider perspective, relevant statistics and ways of making proven comparisons when well conducted. It enables a common dialogue and language and is often thought provoking.

Recently, a well-respected English Consultant, Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) – whom I hold in high regard – posted a Twitter link to extremely current research on teaching new vocabulary. Teaching vocabulary is the buzz of the moment, with reports, panels and research seeking frenetically for the ‘right’ answers to an age-old issue that we offered a solution for all those years ago. I didn’t do it by reading academic reports, I did it by many years of striving for the most effective practice in the classroom, trialling my own ideas and those of colleagues – reading, observing, assessing and evaluating to discover which worked and which didn’t. Not empirical research? Just the best practice I could manage as a primary school teacher with no access to professional development.

So, here I am in the final stages of preparing a new approach to an age-old issue for publication – ‘Talk:Write’ – improving communication through oracy, and someone I regard is posting a link to new research. I take pause – shouldn’t I read this and make sure there is not something new I have missed? I download the document:

‘The Hidden Depths of New Word Knowledge: Using graded measures of orthographic and semantic learning to measure vocabulary acquisition’ (Ricketts, Dawson and Davies 2021).

Part way through the first paragraph of the Introduction, the premise of the research, and indeed – its ultimate findings – were summarised:

‘In emphasising the importance of orthography as well as phonology and semantics in lexical representations, the lexical quality hypothesis (Perfetti & Hart, 2002) is consistent with the prediction that orthographic facilitation will occur in word learning.’

This revealing statement may, sadly, be lost on some as it is buried in a plethora of technical terminology from the academic world of linguistics. I learnt long ago that it is often better not to waste time on decoding the world of academia, but rather to wait until the reports on its findings emerge, which are more usually written in comprehensible language. How amusing one could find it that research intended to make the understanding of communication more effective is communicated in a form incomprehensible to many – unless they have infinite time on their hands and a large academic glossary.

The above quote tells us that, if teaching of new words is backed up by the visual and conventional spelling of the word, as well as it’s sounds and meaning, children learn and retain the word so much better.

This very long report is highly challenging to decode and absorb. It will not change classroom practice until experienced and skilled educators have simplified and clarified it. This is not a problem, however, for most teachers – as it is purely validating that which they already, intuitively, do.

However, there is always a gem in thorough research, although sometimes even the researchers themselves have not realised which small element is the actual new insight. For me, the gem came a little further on when the researchers reported that:

’Moreover, whilst spoken and written representations of language vary across contexts as a result of changes in voice, accent, handwriting, font and so on, arguably, this is more pronounced for speech. Therefore, orthographic forms may be more readily learned than phonological forms, providing a more effective anchoring device, or hook, on which to hang semantic information.’

I do not know if this report is actually the first to say this – I will have to read more widely to establish that. What I do know is that it makes me stop and throw up my hands in horror. Has all this focus on teaching reading and spelling entirely through phonics from the earliest stages of education over the past decade been a serious detriment to learning for more children, due to the fact that pronunciations vary so greatly that the accurate identification or application of phonetic rules will be an inaccurate science? I struggled to help my own grandchildren with spelling when they were at the start of primary school over the past six years, because they had neither been taught the alphabet nor the names of the letters. Everything had to be done through phonemes. Another generation deprived and damaged perhaps?

This report emphasises the importance of applying a rounded perspective to the teaching of new vocabulary. The study, unusually carried out with latitude, showed that when children learnt new words through a combination of seeing, saying, spelling and semantics, more retained the words eight months later.

At this time, this so reassures me and ratifies our revised approaches that we shall be introducing by this summer through an exciting new initiative named Talk:Write.

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

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Teacher Wellbeing

Recently I read an excellent Q&A session published by TeachCare. It led to my getting involved in a brief discussion on Twitter, firstly about the damage Ofsted is doing in some or many schools (I haven’t seen the stats) and this morphed into my being asked whether I thought teaching had become a more difficult job over the last 15 to 20 years. Having made a fairly glib answer that I didn’t and that the curriculum for example, has actually become more flexible, the discussion ended… but the issue has become an earworm and I can’t escape it.

When I look back to my first 27 years in education, from 1965 to 1992, I can list the headteachers I worked for: TM, DT, TE, PB, BW, XX, CF, DE… eight heads in 27 years. We could enjoy a minor diversion here, called ‘spot the female heads’. It won’t be a lengthy diversion because there is only one – seven of those heads were male. Now I shall award each three main characteristics of leadership based on my experience of them in the profession and the schools they led.

TM: Aloof, Dictatorial, Priority: Unknown – rarely seen
DT: Distant, Non-assertive, Priority: Smooth operation
TE: Gregarious, Disorganised, Priority: Anything but his school
PB: Devious, Dictatorial, Priority: Control
BW: Approachable, Organised, Priority: Smooth running
XX: Aloof, Unprofessional, Priority: The music teacher
CF: Caring, Thorough, Priority: Wellbeing for all
DE: Approachable, Disorganised, Priority: Child-centredness

Two of those heads definitely showed caring to their staff in a crisis, but only when the need was glaringly obvious. Three of them seemed oblivious to the fact that the staff were living people with worries, difficulties and issues. One head was extremely efficient and knowledgeable, but always had time for anyone – pupil or staff or parent. One head was sacked for immorality – frogmarched off the premises after refusing to leave discretely.

Today’s heads are cut from a very different cloth. They are mainly extremely professional and knowledgeable about educational matters, and they toil long hours to keep abreast of change, the latest dictats from above and the needs of the pupils, parents and communities that their schools serve. Yet they also, in the main, work hard to have the issues of staff wellbeing and self-esteem strongly to the forefront of all that they do. And this has been so evident in the way their staff have coped with the terrible traumas, track changes, pendulums and pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why are the current generation of teachers generally so much more stressed than their colleagues of the past? Disregard the pandemic of course, that would do it for anyone, so let’s consider the teachers who entered the profession from 1995 to 2015. Pre-2000, I was mainly working as an LA advisor across 150 primary schools and I never saw a teacher cry about school-related issues or heard that anyone else had. Over the 12 years that I was involved in Ofsted inspections, I never heard that we had left a teacher in tears, or a head teacher for that matter – although I fear that we must have. The National Strategies were inflicted on primary schools and changed and rechanged. Testing was reviewed and changed. Ofsted was reviewed and changed in 2005, 2009 and 2015. Teachers were often stressed but rarely to the point of tears and they did not leave the profession in the numbers that do today.

So why today? The Ofsted regime and its associated inspection framework changed again in 2019 and that has certainly led to huge stresses and anxiety across staff at all levels. School leaders and teachers also report feeling undervalued by the government. In actual fact, heads work incredibly hard to try to meet the constantly changing demands and pressures from above. Historically, education has always been the scapegoat of new governments and the pendulum has swung constantly – reversing policy, practice and curriculum with each incoming regime. Now, however, one party has been in government since 2010, so why is the pendulum still swinging so violently and why are heads running themselves ragged to keep up with it? The answer has to be that a change of party or portfolio leadership is almost as impactful as a change of government… and the further we edge away from the principles of ‘Every Child Matters’, the less we address the needs of the majority of our schools’ populations.

The issue of teacher wellbeing is not unique to England:

‘In one study, 85 percent of teachers reported that work-life imbalance was affecting their ability to teach. Other research has shown that at least 30 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. Like our research, these studies found that the general causes of teacher stress and burnout are related to a lack of strong leadership and a negative climate, as well as increased job demands, especially around testing, addressing challenging student behaviours, a lack of autonomy and decision-making power, and limited-to-no training in social and emotional learning (SEL) to support educators’ and students’ emotional needs.’

(Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges: Yale Centre for Education USA; April 2020)

I have always felt that NPQH, introduced as a qualification for headship in 1997, had something to answer for in generating teacher stress. We now have a nation of schools almost totally led by NPQH qualified head teachers, many of whom have been inculcated into the theory of the tick-box route to success. The current programme provided by most institutions is much improved and deals far more with reality and practice. Our heads strive for the best for their pupils and community, and in doing so they are constantly trying to improve their systems and solutions to match the best they see around them. Best practice is shared and circulated. Ofsted has only to praise an approach and a network of schools will adopt it tomorrow. So – for the teachers – the pendulum swings. A new requirement, method, format, system… change… change… change…

Finally, the constant changes in policy and practice lead to stressed leadership and stressed leadership unintentionally transmits stress to the staff of their school in so many ways, especially with increasing expectations, increasing demands and regular changes in decision or direction.  We all need to sit back, take a great sigh and say, ‘Enough is enough!’ Education should be led by educators, with education at the heart of the process. I wish we could throw everything out and start again with wellbeing of pupils and staff underpinning the process rather than tagged on alongside. However, we can’t. All we can do is believe in ourselves and our staff, consult and consider, and ensure that all changes are only for the better. If in doubt, don’t do it (or not yet) – and if change truly can’t be avoided, make it gradually in a planned and managed way.

Relevant publications I have enjoyed recently include:

Back on Track by Mary Myatt
Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care by Adrian Bethune and Emma Kell
Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom by Adrian Bethune
Preserving Positivity by Haili Hughes
What They Didn’t Teach Me on My PGCE by Sarah Mullin

And, of course, our own It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

Find Out More

International Women's Day

I lay in bed and listened to the 24-hour news. A young lady kidnapped, abused and murdered by a policeman. Women saying they are afraid to walk our streets at night. I am afraid to walk our streets at night. Was it ever thus?

I used to stop on my way home from school at the garage of the wealthy elderly woman across the road from us. Mr. Pearson – her chauffer and mechanic – sat me on his knee, gave me sweets and stroked my bottom inside my knickers. I liked the sweets. I was 11.

When I was fourteen, Alex asked me out. We met through chapel and I knew he had just ‘broken up’ with his girlfriend of 2 years. I also knew he was not over her and that I was second best, but I was pleased to be asked. He was very 16 and very attractive, and I was flattered. On our second date we went on the tram to Harehills. In those days Harehills was a thriving hub of coffee bars and the first ever Chinese restaurant in our locality of north Leeds. Alex and I had an expresso coffee In Hernsndo’s where my sister worked (and I would part time in one more year). It felt so sophisticated

When we left the coffee bar, we walked down to the main road between Leeds and its suburbs. As we approached the tram stop a group of about 6 lads in what was known as ‘teddy boy’ gear  (drainpipe trousers, long jackets with velvet collars and long hair tied back) fell into step behind us. They followed us to the tram stop, boarded the tram behind us and seated themselves downstairs at the rear by the exit while we went upstairs.

As we disembarked at Oakwood clock, the gang of lads also rose and followed us off the tram. They strolled along Wetherby Road behind us, speeding up as we sped up. Alec and I never spoke. We did not acknowledge their presence. I was afraid. I dare not say so.

We turned up Ladywood Road. The lads crowded in on me and Alex crossed the road, keeping pace but separate. They crowded round me, then started groping me. It was autumn and I had a thick coat on. At first, they explored my private parts through the thick blue and green shaggy coat, but then they started to reach inside… laughing and shouting and encouraging one another.

Alex walked on the opposite side of the road with his head down. I was very afraid.

A car turned the corner from Springwood Road into Ladywood Road. Cars were rare in those days, especially after dark. It was 1958.

The lads panicked, they shouted at each other and they ran back the way we had come. Alex crossed the road and asked if I was OK. I said I was. He walked on up the road and I turned down our unmade private road to my home. He didn’t ask me out again, in fact we never spoke again and within two weeks he was back with his original girlfriend.

It was International Women’s Day. I have never told anyone about the events of that night, and I have never felt comfortable being out by myself after dark.


Stamina with Style

Building stamina with style is very achievable – it is about expectation. And expectations shape outcomes – so Robert Rosenthal said in November 2003. It is known as The Pygmalion Effect! If you expect children from aged 7 upwards to complete a side or more of lively, relevant and technically accurate writing within 50 minutes, the majority will be successful by the 4th session of weekly unsupported writing. Stamina will now be maintained for as long as the weekly sessions and the expectation are sustained and teaching for writing can focus much more on building of extensive and rich vocabulary and sentence structures.

And don’t let anyone hear you say, “We haven’t got the time!”

We are developing a new programme that teaches children to a) talk correctly in Standard English b) use sophisticated language structures and vocabulary with confidence and c) re-develop writing stamina.

The teaching of accuracy and style should be taught in schools as most children will not develop these skills spontaneously through reading. In Talk:Write it is achieved in bite-sized, fun activities and games enjoyed in short sessions (often of around 10 minutes) scattered across every week in between lessons or as a ‘brain-break’ in the middle of a lesson. They are made relevant to the teaching that is taking place and thus may be adapted to any subject of the curriculum. The sustained, unsupported writing is deliberately moved around the subjects that lend themselves to extended writing, so that it does not dominate the English curriculum; for example – this week it might be reporting a science investigation, next week it might be a discursive text on decimation of the rainforests and the week after it may be a persuasive piece for PSHE on the importance of a daily PE session for every child.

What fun the children have had in our trials! They love the short role plays with characters of different speech registers and attitudes. Our programme values and cherishes regional accents and dialects which we believe should be used in parallel with learning Standard English and sophisticated structures. Pupils also compete eagerly to solve a challenge or register the most examples against the clock and they laugh with glee as they spot specific features or errors. Classes cheer when they know it is time for Talk:Write – and week by week their writing becomes increasingly mature and sophisticated. And when it comes time to produce their extended writing – they are eager to showcase their newfound writer’s voice and style.

Dedicating one hour a week to such an important skill as written communication that is the vehicle for testing of subject knowledge across the whole curriculum for their entire secondary (and for some – higher) education should be an easy decision to make. If you study marked GCSE and ‘A’ Level scripts in subjects like science, geography and history – the differences between the highest and the lowest scoring scripts is very often NOT subject knowledge per se, but rather the ability to communicate that knowledge in grammatically correct and often expressive writing, while working at sufficient pace to be able to complete the paper within the time scale. It takes true stamina to write at length while responding to stimuli or questions that were previously unseen. Thinking about answers takes time. Composing the language of answers will take time if it has to be done consciously. The process of producing 2 or more sides of writing can be tiring if not pre-programmed. All these factors can spell doom for a pupil who has not previously been required to complete such work in one sitting.

Rest assured, the choice is yours! The current government and testing agencies don’t seem bothered but for us and for the children we teach – STAMINA WITH STYLE MATTERS!

Find out more about the Stamina with Style Online CPD course. We have a School or Single Licence option.

Get in touch to find out more about Talk:Write and building stamina with style.

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It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

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Chapter 1 of It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

Setting the Scene of My First Five Years

Times have changed so much over the years. When I started teaching in 1965, there was no help at all. I clearly remember being abandoned in an art room with a register and left to get on with it. No one offered advice and I knew no one to ask. It was a 700-pupil secondary school with a head, two deputies and 50 members of staff. I cannot remember any of them asking if I was alright or if I needed help. I had never marked a register before, my blackboard writing wobbled and I had planned no lessons as I had not been given a timetable.

I do remember being petrified. Nothing I had done at school or at college seemed to have prepared me adequately for this. I stood and looked at a class, sometimes in abject fear, not knowing what to say or do. Some ‘lessons’ proved totally unsuitable for the age of the groups they were prepared for and some were completed in 15 minutes with nothing else prepared to last the rest of the hour. I didn’t feel like a teacher, I didn’t think like a teacher and I didn’t look like a teacher.

Worst of all, I didn’t know how a 21-year-old teacher was supposed to feel, think or look and the school seemed to be populated with ‘old’ teachers so I had no immediate role models.

It didn’t help that I didn’t have any ‘real’ clothes suitable for a teacher, I keenly felt that my image was all wrong – I had never planned on teaching. Female teachers were not allowed to wear any form of trousers in school at that time, with the exception of PE teachers who were allowed to wear track suit bottoms in winter. As students, we were cut some slack, but now it was ‘for real’. Every day was a dilemma of what to wear, with the only two skirts I possessed both being very short and tight. Today, everyone is used to seeing women of all ages in fairly short, tight skirts, but in the 1960s it was only the younger generations and so – even on such a large staff – it was me, alone. My summer tops were basically different forms of T-shirts, mainly baggy and worn – and in winter I wore the same big home-knitted jumpers I had sported in college. Money was short and cheaper clothing was confined to the big cities. There was no internet, of course, and on a salary of £45 a month after tax, it was a long time before I could afford to make myself more presentable.

How I wish I had asked family for contributions to my wardrobe for my birthday when I knew I had been appointed. How you feel about your appearance is important (although you should not worry about what others think) and getting it right can be a big help. I was demoralised enough in those first months in the profession and worrying about my perceived unprofessional image only compounded the low self-esteem.

My register class was a Year 8 class of 12 to 13 year olds and the day was full of ringing bells. One bell brought the pupils in at 9am and one signalled us to go to the hall for assembly – a daily event led by the head wearing his graduation gown. The students stood in rows and sang two hymns accompanied by a woman on the grand piano. Then the head read a passage from the Bible, everyone said the Lord’s Prayer and we filed back out again. It was about as spiritual as a visit to the doctors. As this was going on, the second deputy head, Basher Burgess, was roaming up and down the rows of students, punching them in the kidneys and growling: ‘Jesus loves yer,’ in their ears. Periodically, he would fling an arm towards the double doors and a troublesome child would shuffle out to join the ever increasing line-up outside his office and – when assembly was over – Basher would fetch his cane and give each pupil three strokes on each hand. It was clearly a highly effective form of behaviour management as it was almost always the same pupils there the next day and the day after…

The final bell at the start of the day told register classes to go to their first lesson and I waited to see who would arrive in my room for their double period art lesson. In the end, I sent a student to the office to ask if I could please have a timetable so that I could be better prepared.

There were three art rooms, two were adjacent with a shared stock room between them and one – that of the head of art – was at the other end of the school. He never came down to my art room in the four and a half years I was there, and we never had a team meeting. Gordon was in the adjacent room to mine and I didn’t even meet him until my second week. I was petrified. I hid in my room and quaked. Classes came and went. Most of them were quite co-operative but I did have run-ins with the Year 10s on many occasions. They were leaving at the end of the year and were demob happy from my very first day in September. I didn’t know what to do about them and had no one to ask. I began to dread their lessons, the rudeness, occasional missiles flung and the loud conversations across the room.

When I plucked up the courage to ask Gordon about it after a month he just laughed and said Year 10s were always like that every year, but I couldn’t hear any noise coming from his end of the stockroom. There were no policies for guidance and no detentions.

The staffroom was large and full of easy chairs, usually in two circles with a single line round the extremities. I was totally ignored for the first two months and dreaded going in there. People appeared to have their own seats and sat in the same place at both break and lunch time. My first visit resulted in a rather large lady saying, ‘That’s Dennis’s seat!’ quite sharply when I went to sit down. Lunch was served in the hall and was equally traumatic. I hadn’t the courage to walk straight to the front of the long queue and could waste most of my lunch time waiting to be served. I soon abandoned school lunches and took a sandwich, which I ate in my art room, alone.

Building strong relationships with your colleagues is important. We all need to feel a part of something, we need friendship and a smile from time to time. We also need to have colleagues we can trust and whose advice we can seek. Professor Sam Twiselton has written about ‘getting in with the wrong crowd’ in her contribution, to be found in the opening section of the book. In a large school that is an easy mistake to make – there are always a few grumblers and dissenters in a staffroom. Unfortunately, in the last full-time post I held in a primary school in Kirklees, the dissenters were led by the deputy head! I didn’t ‘get in’ with anyone, grumblers or otherwise.

Leadership of a school is so important for newly qualified teachers. There was no leadership in my first experience of teaching – it was every one for themselves. I struggled, but I certainly wasn’t the worst. I remember passing poor Mr Baum’s class with horror. He had first years – aged 11 to 12 – and first years were with one teacher for all lessons except PE and science. Mr Baum’s class was totally out of control, missiles flew round the room and children climbed on chairs and desks while he stood – red faced and apoplectic – at the front trying to shout above the noise. He was a mature man who had trained late and this was his second year at the school. He left the profession at the end of my first year.

What I soon learned in that first school was that you can’t win by trying to out-shout pupils from challenging backgrounds. That first school was located in a small coal mining town, in the days when the pits were still open. In those days, the narrow streets were lined almost exclusively with two-bedroom, red brick terrace houses within which there were often two or three adults and three or four or more children. Life was crowded and noisy and frequently tempers would flare. Our students knew all about how to win by shouting… they knew less about how to respond to calm and peace and praise and kindness, so focusing on those qualities, and praising pupils who responded, was far more effective. Yet I still struggled, and there were many days when I stood in despair at the front of a noisy rabble and didn’t know whether to scream or cry.

Gradually, however, I made a few friends, earned my own seat in the staffroom and started to feel more a part of things. Perhaps I had been giving off the wrong vibes and that deterred staff from speaking? But I never found a mentor to advise me and support me in my early, blindfolded venture into the profession.

How I Bumbled My Way into Teaching

How could I go through three years at teacher training college and come out at the other end ignorant and totally unprepared for the job? There are three answers to that question.

The first thing to say is that I never wanted to be a teacher. I disliked teachers and schools intensely due to my own personal experience as a pupil in both primary and secondary school. My family circumstances deteriorated due to the death of my father when I was five, after he had spent two years in bed totally paralysed following a stroke. Mother was left with four children aged five to ten and no income in the days before widow’s pension or any sort of state benefit. In order to keep us all together, we moved to a huge Victorian semi-detached and took in six students from Leeds University. Life was hard and during the lengthy holidays we were quite impoverished. Sadly, I became quite dirty and neglected. The primary school I attended was quite ‘middle class’ and gradually I became isolated and lonely, and acquired the label ‘stink bomb’.

Secondary school was a little better as I learned to keep myself clean and tidy, and my two older sisters were already in the school. However, I was already disaffected and – although I was able enough to keep my place in the ‘A’ class of four streams – I didn’t work hard and I didn’t get on with many of the staff. It is a sad indictment of the profession to admit that, when on a day’s professional development, we were asked to think of the most inspirational teacher we had ever met during our own time at school, I was the only one of the 60 on the Kirklees Local Authority team unable to find one inspirational teacher from my personal past.

My one passion at the girls’ high school was art. In those days, I thought I was quite good at art and it led to me really wanting to leave high school at the end of Year 11 to go to Leeds Art College in order to become a commercial artist. However, when I informed the school of this midway through Year 11, I was summoned to the headteacher’s office and she reduced me to tears with a mix of sarcasm and ridicule. It transpired that no one left an ‘A’ class without completing sixth form and going to university. If I persisted in my application, she would tell the college the ‘truth’ about me as a scholar, but if I stayed on for sixth form, she would give me a reasonable reference. It was all about the numbers in a sixth form for funding in
those days.

I stayed on.

Part way through the first year of sixth form, however, I discovered that I could enter teacher training college with just six O-levels and no A-levels (I had scraped eight GCEs) at the end of first year sixth form due to the difference in age specification for entry. To start school, the age requirement was to be aged five by the start of the September of that school year. To enter college, the age requirement was to be 18 by the end of September. My birthday is in September – I had always been the oldest at school and now I was to be the youngest at college.

So, I escaped school early after all and ended up training for a profession I had no intention of pursuing in the future.

The final factor was that, due to the massive snows of 1963 and my partner-in-crime, who was on first teaching practice in the same rural primary school as myself, we managed to get through the second term’s teaching placement by not arriving at the school until 10.30 in the morning and leaving again at 2.30 in the afternoon, thus only teaching one real lesson a day. Ron, the minibus driver, was amazingly receptive to bribery and so we achieved being last to be dropped off in the morning (after enjoying a mug of steaming hot tea in a transport café with Ron) and the first to be picked up in the afternoon, even though we were not ‘at the end of the line’. We arrived at school with tales of being stuck in snow drifts or blocked by others stuck in the snow. A packet of cigarettes a week for our driver certainly did the business!

Our second teaching practice was in the final year, and this time I was on my own in a secondary school. This could have been regarded as a realistic introduction to ‘the other side of the desk’ as the experience was very similar to my first true post two terms later. The head of art spent my lessons in the staffroom and was quite disparaging about my outcomes yet offered no help at all – and I asked for none. I made no friends, and nobody gave me any advice. My teaching was mediocre, and I learned little from the experience – and especially because halfway through I was taken ill in school and sent home (a journey of which I have no memory). The next day mother called for the doctor and he came twice in four hours as he was so worried. My right arm and side were temporarily paralysed. Sufficient to say I missed over three weeks of the practice, and was threatened with a repeat of my third year as no one could miss longer than one week, but thanks to the senior lecturer at college, I was given a reprieve.

The amazing thing is that I entered a profession I disliked intensely, without any desire to teach at all, and with scarcely any actual teaching experience under my belt, but as soon as I discovered that you could treat pupils and learning in quite the opposite way to the way I was taught, I grew to love it and have loved it ever since.

I learned to model my practice on the teachers I admired most, I learned confidence and approachability, and most of all, I learned to ask for help when I needed it, even if it was never offered. Watching and learning from others is a great way to get started – you will soon adapt and customise your practice to reflect your personal preferences and style.

Departing from My First Post

A final complication in my early career was my chosen means of transport to school – a Honda 50 – a very small motor scooter, quite new to the scene at the time.

When I accepted the job at the secondary school, I hadn’t thought about how I would get there. It was a shock, therefore, to discover that the journey would involve a 20-minute bus ride to Wakefield bus station and then a change of buses for a 35-minute ride to Normanton followed by a ten-minute walk to the school. With delays and waits for buses, a total of up to one and a half hours at the beginning and end of each day. I only tried it once before school opened to know it was not feasible for a reluctant traveller, so I went to a garage in Wakefield and came out with a brand-new scooter bought on credit.

I loved that machine! I practised conscientiously prior to the first day of term and found I could complete the whole journey in anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes. Perfect! It would have helped if I had known what time teachers usually started at schools in those days (not nearly as early as they do today), so I made a guesstimate and roared into the front gates at 20 to 9 of day one! That was not early enough – even for the ’60s – as a really angry faced woman standing with folded arms and legs akimbo on the top step of the main entrance informed me in no uncertain terms.

Very Angry Lady did not introduce herself by either name or post, she did not shake my hand or welcome me to the school or the profession. She snarled:

‘Follow me!’ and I grabbed my bags and followed her, helmet flaps flapping, down two corridors, through a hall, down a third corridor and round a corner where she opened the door on the left, virtually pushed me in, thrust a register at me, and growled:

‘This is your room, this is your register,’ and left.

That lady never spoke to me again in the four and a half years I was at the school. She was the first deputy head. Actually – that was not true – she did turn back at the door and snap:

‘And shift that wretched machine from the front of the school and never park it there again!’

Riding a small scooter not built to travel at more than 50 miles an hour may be a pleasure on most summer and early autumn days, but in the depths of winter it is often a horror. I would arrive at school battered and bedraggled, often soaking wet and very cold. I couldn’t afford (and probably wouldn’t have worn) suitable waterproofs for the job, and a duffle coat and helmet are not the most protective all-weather wear. 

I often set off a little late and would be pushing the small machine beyond its capacity, hurtling round bends as though I was in the TT on the Isle of Man. I had many near misses but only actually fell off once, skidding sideways in heavy rain on the top of the moorland – much to the pleasure, it seemed, of the gentleman following me in a small, grey car. He parked close to me, got out and greeted me (still lying on the road in the rain) with
the words:

‘I knew you were going to fall off, you were riding much too fast.’

Luckily, I was completely alright except for one grazed leg, but it did take some of the fun out of my future journeys. I also got tired of the endless jokes on the playground and in the staffroom about Batman, Super Woman, Ros Sheene or Ros Dunlop (after two famous motorcyclists), Chug Chug Girl, Ros the Drip and so on and so on…

After four and a half years, I had had enough of the travel and was seeking a job nearer to home.

My Top Tips for Starting a New Post

  • Remember that everyone struggles in some areas at the beginning, persevere – it will all come right in the end.
  • Keep calm or at least fake calmness!
  • Praise those children who work hard and behave, and ignore those who don’t – unless there is danger!
  • Ask for help if no one has offered it.
  • Accept all the help you can get and listen to your mentor and others.
  • Make friends and ask them for advice when you need it.
  • Buy a couple of appropriate professional outfits and a change of shirts/tops to accompany them – dress to feel good about yourself.
  • Consider your journey to school before accepting a post. Many new teachers need to accept the first job they are offered, but you still need to take care of yourself and – if you can afford it – a small car is still the best means if public transport is too challenging. After a few weeks, you will probably be able to agree a car share with another member of staff for the environment’s sake.

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

Find Out More

Filmclasspod

Recently, I was privileged to record a podcast with Shain and Sean for @filmclasspod. When I agreed to doing this, I had assumed that we would be talking about children’s writing, my work or my recent books. Wrong! Guess who hadn’t done her research well enough? Shain and Sean were in the middle of recording a series of interviews with people known in the world of literacy – specifically, at this time, focussing on JK Rowling and the Harry Potter Series.

“Of course, that’s fine.” I confirmed with a gulp – not daring to point out that I had never finished reading the series. “I’d especially love to discuss the very first book…”

“Oh no, sorry, we are on to book 3 now, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Is that OK for you?”

“Of course it is, I would love to review that with you,” I croaked… and I went off to weep on the loo.

Book 3 of the Harry Potter series was the book that turned me off the series! I didn’t finish reading it when it first came out in 1999 and I never read another of the series after that. It had a lot to answer for! I had loved books 1 and 2 – and like so many fans – I had waited eagerly for book 3. What a disappointment it was to me when it came out. It seemed complicated and confused, as though JK Rowling thought that to write as a boy now in his teens, you needed to write a complex and tortuous text. I barely read four chapters before abandoning Harry to his wizarding ways and finding myself a new hero.

So, I got on Amazon and bought the book… I watched the movie with my grandchildren… I re-launched myself into the book… AND I ENJOYED IT!

Perhaps because I had such dreadful memories of it, The Prisoner of Azkaban turned out to only have miniscule glitches and – for much of it – held me in its thrall. Perhaps watching the movie first clarified some of the confusion I had felt first time? Certainly, the book clarified some plot mysteries in the movie the second time. All in all, it transpired to be an enjoyable interlude in a working week.

I also learnt a lot from Shain, who is extremely knowledgeable on the entire Harry Potter series. She explained so clearly how the 3rd movie was the first that really strayed away from the text at certain points, and we agreed that perhaps the director had felt a similar disquiet to my own at times, leading to this change in interpretation. The first two movies had followed the plot of the appropriate books so closely.

In retrospect, I enjoyed the whole experience very much and was only left with one small area of irritation: poor proof reading in the early and late sections of the book – despite reprints.

Enjoy this podcast and other great discussions on their website or on Twitter – @filmclasspod.

 

A few proofing errors (in the form of contradictions) from The Prisoner of Azkaban:

Page 50:

Harry follows Tom up ‘a handsome wooden staircase’ in The Leaky Cauldron.

Page 74:

The boys heave their trunks down ‘The Leaky Cauldron’s narrow staircase.’

 

*****

 

Page 76:

‘Harry and Mr. Weasley led the way to the end of the train, past packed compartments, to a carriage that looked quite empty. They loaded the trunks onto it, stowed Hedwig and Crookshanks in the luggage rack, then went back outside…’

Page 78:

Harry, Ron and Hermione set off down the corridor looking for an empty compartment, but all were full except for the one at the very end of the train. This only had one occupant, a man sitting fast asleep next to the window.’

Page 83:

‘People were chasing backwards and forwards past the door of their compartment.’

 

*****

 

Page: 363:

‘Ron crawled to the four-poster bed and collapsed onto it…’

Page 363:

Lupin enters the room, ‘His eyes flickered over Ron, lying on the floor…’

Page 368:

Black and Crookshanks climbed onto the bed and ‘…Ron edged away from them.’

Page 372:

‘Harry caught him (Ron) and pushed him………… back on the bed!’

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

Find Out More

5 years launch blog speakers onscreen

The Launch of It Takes 5 Years...

What a happy day Saturday 24th October 2020 was! That was the day we held a virtual launch of #ItTakes5Years…

It was my good friends, Dame Alison Peacock and Professor Sam Twiselton, who persuaded me we should have a launch and it was Richard Robinson’s idea to ask Emma Turner to host the event – and a brilliant idea it was. She’s a natural and keeps the flow going beautifully.

I wrote to all the original eight co-authors who had so swiftly and willingly contributed moments from their early careers for inclusion in the book, asking if any would be willing and able to join us on a Saturday morning and to my amazement every one of them replied promptly that they would. How I wish I could have invited all the other eighteen contributors but it would have made us all so small on ‘streamyard’ that we wouldn’t be seen, and there would not have been enough time for all to do more than introduce themselves… We shall save the full team appearance for the live launch post the pandemic.

Explaining the thinking behind this high-speed publication – seven weeks to write, three weeks of proofing and assembling and one week to publish thanks to Richard and Ben, my colleagues – was an important element of the introduction to the event between Emma and myself; that innocent  conversation over a Chinese meal with Kirstie and Ben led to the fastest turn-around I have ever known. Yes, that all-important  throw-away remark by myself to Kirstie all those years ago over dinner in a hotel when she was my front-of-house, before she converted her degree into a teaching , certainly led to the fastest write over long hours six days a week to produce this guidance and advice for early career teachers in time for the new school year. And we did it! And we made the remark the title of the book!

It was when the sections from the co-authors came in that I suddenly realised, to my great surprise, that every one of the eight of us had had such similar experiences and emotions at the start of our careers. That was what led me to throw the net wider and ask on twitter if anyone else would be so generous as to contribute, and I am deeply grateful for the additional eighteen contributors who stepped forward so willingly.  And yes – their early career experiences replicated the pattern. Yet no-one had told any of us how hard it would be at times in those first years in the classroom, how much we would want to bare our souls to someone and say how we were really struggling at times, even though it seems safe to assume that most of the lecturers who taught us and the colleagues in the staff rooms had almost all had similar experiences and worries.

So that was the premise of the book – to make the great reveal and to announce to our newly qualified colleagues the best guarded secrets of education – that ‘the emperor has no clothes on’.

My sincere thanks to all who contributed in any way, to all who ‘attended’ on the 24th and to the thousands who have viewed the video since, as well as to the many who have purchased the book and for the warm and generous feedback they have given us.

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

Find Out More

It Takes 5 Years...

I was sitting chatting with Kirstie Pilmer one Sunday afternoon in late May (at a safe ten feet of course) when Kirstie started telling me about how much she was enjoying her fifth year of teaching as a qualified teacher.

“Do you remember telling me it takes five years to become a fully effective teacher?” she asked. “I thought that must be an exaggeration and I remember thinking in my third year that I really was a fully effective teacher. But now I see what you mean. I don’t have to think about it anymore. I can sail into my classroom and start, I can respond to wherever the children take the learning, I can throw in anecdotes and jokes and illustrations and examples… It has become a fluid and natural process and I LOVE it!”

“That certainly won’t be how this year’s NQTs will be feeling in September, having been in lockdown since March,” I said. “Nor even those in their second year, as they only completed half of their NQT year in normality.”

We discussed the stresses and issues teachers in their first four or five years would be facing during lockdown and whatever came after it, and the fact that they would need lots of help and support.

“The trouble is,” I commented, “everyone will be needing help and support for as long as this lasts, regardless of how long they have been teaching, because it is a new crisis for everyone. No-one has ever been through this before… no-one can advise… there isn’t a book on how to do it. Headteachers have been amazing at keeping schools running in such terrible circumstances.”

And that’s when the penny dropped! We couldn’t write a book to help experienced teachers through the worst pandemic ever to hit the globe, that would be a job for the future if ever needed, but we could write a book to help those in the early stages of their professional career.

“Do you think you could tell the story of your first five years in the profession, Kirstie?” I asked. “Warts and all, that difficult class you had last year and the stresses and problems you have met on your journey?”

It didn’t take long to persuade my professional friend of ten years (Kirstie used to be my ‘front of house’ and driver for almost three years after she graduated and before she trained as a teacher) that her input would be invaluable for those new to teaching and that her contribution could be a vital part of the book. And it was thus that the idea was born.

“I have just finished my fifth year of teaching and it was a completely different experience. I was confident in my ‘teacher skin’ for the first time… it feels as though someone just flicked a switch and suddenly, I got it. Things I wasn’t sure about previously slotted into place, and now I feel like I can see the whole picture rather than lots of little parts of it.”
(Kirstie Pilmer, August 2020)

As I started to take down notes and ideas and the book started to take shape in my mind, I suddenly realised that the experiences of just two teachers (Kirstie and myself) was not enough for a balanced picture and I approached the seven esteemed colleagues at the peak of our profession, who all agreed to be co-authors, contributing pieces of two hundred words or more on their early experiences in the classroom. Then I had the idea of tweeting to see if anyone else would be interested in joining us and this resulted in eighteen absolutely fascinating accounts of teachers’ journeys into teaching, some written by teachers in the very early stages of their careers and others by colleagues close to retirement, by consultants and by university lecturers. These contributions give the text authenticity and I am so grateful to all the co-authors and contributors for their enthusiasm and time.

“Then came the wrath of the former PE co-ordinator. I naively thought he had happily swapped from PE to maths… There was bad feeling, which came my way by association… I remember one day in a crowded staffroom he said:

‘I bet she doesn’t even know the off-side rule.’

That night I enrolled in evening school to become a qualified football referee. Needless to say once I qualified, I knew more than he did about the off-side rule. Boom! Back of the net!”

(Ginny Bootman August 2020)

Meanwhile, I commenced the writing of the actual book in June and wrote solidly for seven weeks. The words just poured out… I scarcely had to refer to my research or notes. I was staggered at the way details from over fifty years ago and on through my career came flooding back – particularly the trying and tough times. I often wrote for between six and ten hours a day and my part of the book was finished in first draft in seven weeks. The fastest write ever for me.

The seven co-authors and eighteen contributors had a tight deadline too. We considered it essential to have this book available from the start of the new academic year in September. Every single one of them met the deadline and I then switched to compiling the book itself.

I spent a full week on proofing, editing and rewriting my own contribution (sixteen chapters) and on proofing the contributions as they came in. Then the document went to Richard Robinson for two consecutive proof reads and the process of publishing. Richard is the best proof reader I know – alongside my brother who also did one proofread. When all proofs were complete and all edits had been made we had exactly met our deadline of the 19th of August and the completed manuscript went to print on target, on the 31st of August. On Wednesday the 2nd September a large palette of boxes of books was delivered to Richard’s office. The remainder of the week was spent signing pre-release orders and all the co-authors’ and contributors’ copies and the big post-out occurred on schedule with books available from Friday the 4th of September. Job done!

It was during this intense process of compilation and proofing that the amazing fact hit me – the experiences of almost every one of the twenty-seven of us at the start of our careers were so very similar. That is when I finally realised how important the book might be. All except two of us had experienced similar fears, worries and stresses and a significant number of us had had to find our own way through, with little or no real help. That is the experience that has driven so many to leave our profession after only one or two years recently. ‘It Takes Five Years to Become a Teacher’ aims to help these teachers to survive and to thrive!

“Little did I realise that the window was unfastened and as I leant back, smiling and feeling cocky, the window opened right out and I literally fell backwards straight out of the window – proper Del Boy style – and landed on the back path…

Safe to say no more work was done that afternoon, and during the three more years spent in that classroom,  I never sat on the side again!”

(Alex Caunt August 2020)

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

This book will show you why it takes five years to truly feel comfortable as a confident teacher. It will provide reassurance, advice and support for educators in their early careers and beyond.

Find Out More

Scottish Exam Results

Such a controversy! The Scottish Government battered into an apology and total backdown – and quite rightly too. If the reason many students’ grades were lowered was truly their post code, it is not surprising that the powers that be are humiliated. The First Minister admitted that ‘serious errors were made’.

A total of 133,762 individual results were adjusted by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) from the 511,070 initial estimates of grades that were submitted by teachers. Only 9,198 of the estimates were adjusted up. 124,564 were adjusted down. Almost all (96%) were adjusted by a whole grade. Fewer than 10,000 were raised.

The SQA felt that many teachers had been too generous in their estimates of grades.

One of the factors the SQA decided to use to decide whether a grade should be changed is the performance of the school over the previous four years. This was potentially a life-changing decision for a significant number of students. Students who had consistently achieved highly in school found their grades reduced to reflect their school’s previous performance rather than their own abilities.

Of particular concern was the disproportionate effect on students living in areas of economic disadvantage as SQA were influenced by their historical evidence that the poorer the area the less well students performed. In the most deprived areas, moderators reduced results sufficiently that the proportion of students getting A to C grades fell by 15 percentage points compared to the schools’ teacher estimates. In the most affluent areas, the drop was only by 7 points.

Nicola Sturgeon claimed, initially, that this step had been necessary to make the results credible, and that without this moderation system 85% of students in the most deprived areas would have passed Highers this years, as opposed to 65% in previous years.

My only comment would be, that this flattening of results through so called ‘moderation’ has gone on for many years. Without annual ‘flattening’ of scores to reflect history, perhaps a steady rise towards 85% might have been seen? We shall never know. However, hopefully, one good outcome of this tragic pandemic could be a proper re-examination and reform of the marking of our examination systems.

My own experience in education led to my underperforming in term time throughout school, yet mainly performing well in examinations. Had I been a student of the pandemic, I might never have been admitted to the profession of education. More on this in my next blog, following the release of the English results.