Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Day 2: Learning to keep quiet and watch and learn

Ok, seemed to navigate day 1 without creating a reef of grief.  Fell asleep during the yoga exercise, hopefully didn't snore too loudly.  Looked at last year's results. Looks good so far.  Keep quiet you idiot until you know what you are talking about.  Vocalise here where nobody reads it and it can cause no concerns.  Talk bout the kids and the holidays, keep it light.

There are many things that I wish I was good at.  I've watched people walk the room and talk to everyone in sight, with a smile and some smalltalk.  I gave it a red hot go and hope that people see me as a fairly affable soul looking keen to get started in a new role (and not the annoying new person that knows everything).  Work the absent minded professor role and see what happens.

I can't tell where the undercurrent is coming from, but it appears to be there - a group of people outwardly working together but a very strange vibe at the moment.  It could just be new people working together and not quite gelling yet, I really hope so.  It appears that there has been significant turnover, which has created administrative load.

Timetables today.  Hopefully IT issues sorted out.  It would be nice to get some time to walk the school and learn the lay of the land.  Need a spec teacher stat! Get a few boxes of stuff out of my garage and onto my shelves.  It's all a very odd feeling.  Start operational plans and budgets.

Back to waking at 5am.  This is good as I've been sleeping in too long and was wondering if it was an age thing.  Hives on my left wrist telling me to calm down.  I'm so excited though!! Enthusiasm is a good thing!

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

New day, new job, first day jitters

For the first time in many years I start in a new job, with new people and a new context to apply my skills.  It's a bullet I should have bitten a fair time ago and so far I'm glad I did it.  For the first time in my career I walk away from an environment without leaving a big hole that is difficult to fill and hopefully on good terms.  Last year wasn't a bad year. I've been a Deputy for an extended period, I've come out relatively unscathed and I've won a great position in a new school.

As you get more senior in an environment, it's fairly normal to see divergence in what you think should be done and what the general consensus is.  If you tend to be less risk averse than the incumbent team, then the gap is likely to increase with time.  There are a number of main ways to deal with it.  You can roll with it, you can try to influence the decision makers or you can leave and find a new environment and bring your hard won skills with you.  The alternative is to stay, get stale and discontent.

I've tried the roll with it routine, it's not me and I get frustrated over time.  It's more my style to run a team, to understand the goals of the decision makers, influence the team to align with those goals and influence decision makers to align with what the team wants to achieve and measure the results.  My last role sat between the decision makers and staff and I spent a lot of time explaining and supporting decisions that I didn't always agree with and had no team to work with.  It's exciting to be back with a team and be able to do great things again.

With performance management, I work with staff to ensure that they don't feel stale.  What is the path to their ATAR class, do they want leadership opportunities, do they need support whilst their children are growing up, how are they travelling physically and mentally, do they need pedagogical, assessment or behavioural support, do they need support understanding the evidence base of their classes, are they looking for promotion, do their requirements align with the needs of our students and the school?  These are critical questions to ensuring that staff are engaged and have a clear career pathway to staying relevant in the system.

This time, I don't know if I have an enthusiastic team wanting me to succeed, but I'm guessing so as nearly all teaching staff are good people.  I will miss those that carried me through difficult times and believed that I could do it, even when I looked at a problem and thought how can I do all that!  Doing the impossible has been in my job description a few times in my career, looking at the stats of my new school, for a change, this does not appear the case.  I'll know more when I have more information at hand today.

I'm looking forward to doing the basics well.  Operational Plan, Performance Management, Compliance documents, Faculty Budget, Evidence base, Teaching and Learning.

I've prepped what I can, I've had a good break, everything seems to be aligning nicely.  Bring on that first day!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Should I send my children to a state high school?

Short answer.  In nearly every case. Yes.  If you live in the Western Suburbs and their peers are going to an Independent Public school, if your child is top 5% academically or has an disability, you have personal history at that school, if your local public school is going through a difficult transition or if you are looking for religious education as part of the curriculum then maybe not.

Long Answer. As a teacher supportive of public education this was a very difficult decision and long drawn out process for my own children.  For a short period I was teaching in a public school, was an advocate for private education and was sending my children to a private school.  It made it very difficult to recommend a state school to parents and raised the question of "if I believed in the private system why wasn't I teaching in the private system too?",  "Was I not good enough to even teach in a higher SE school and why wasn't a public school good enough for my own children?"

I wanted the best for my kids as do all parents, the independent private schools had superior resourcing and better results.  Surely it was a no brainer to pay the money and get a better education.

With the benefit of hindsight I can say that I was very, very wrong for my family.  There are clear reasons why private schools outperform public schools and though it has a little to do with teaching quality as they have more control over staffing processes, it is not the only factor.  Despite odd employment practices in the public system, there are very fine, vocational teachers working in public schools working under demanding conditions.

The basic reason private schools outperform public schools in low SE schools is that cost of living clumps struggling families together.  Many families in low SE areas lack the education to support their children, in many cases had poor experiences within the education system and subsequently lack support for the education system itself.  The proportion of drug use, poor parental skills, unemployment, cultural issues, mental health issues, lack of tertiary study and lack of contact with their own children due to work commitments is much higher.  The entry levels of students at low SE schools are much lower requiring more creative work by teachers in secondary school to access the curriculum.  The skills of teachers in low SE schools is not just about curriculum, it's dealing with all the other issues too, whilst teaching children.

For most people, in higher SE areas there are few reasons not to use higher SE state schools, your decision should be based on local performance and perception.  Investigate local issues with local parents to see what is really going on.  Public documents will not reveal much.  If parents talk about bullying and uncontrolled classes think about the local fee paying privates - but make sure it's not happening there too.  Find out about the tenure of the Principal and their focus. Shifting students from public to private between primary and secondary is tempting but brings a considerable level of disruption to their learning whilst they adjust.  There is risk in transition socially, emotionally and academically at a time of significant developmental change.

My own experience putting my first child in a high ranking independent private school from Kindergarten was not good.  I was promised a thriving young girl and was delivered an unhappy child in a highly competitive environment, with little curriculum differentiation for a quirky student (as opposed to children at either end of the educational spectrum), poor pastoral care and a group of upwardly mobile people that we could not relate to.  As the naive parent that initially proposed sending my child there, it is a decision I have forever regretted.

It's not that the school did not deliver for those parents that pressed their kids, wanted homework, were in the top 5% or had an ID, students that benefitted from strict curriculum delivery and desired upward mobility or were already wealthy and knew it.  It just wasn't what we wanted for our kids.  After four years of an unhappy child, we moved her to the local public school.  It has taken two years for her to be a happy kid again and having normal developmental issues rather than social and curriculum ones.  What I discovered was the difference of her being embedded with families of similar values outweighs perceived academic benefits.  She could be a kid again and develop at her own pace together with our expectation that she would always give her best effort - not be coached beyond it through constant parental tutoring - the expectation at the private independent school to compete.  If you are in a situation like us, I'd suggest rip off the band-aid and get them out, don't hesitate and don't struggle with the decision.  It is the kindest thing to do for your child.

We all want the best for our kids.  Mine can cope in an environment where they are instructed what to do and are happy to do it.  At their new school there is little bullying and enough pastoral care available to deal with little issues.  Teaching is a bit hit and miss as the environment is not particularly challenging and because there is no mechanism to weed teachers out if the teacher can't deliver.

We have three low fee private schools nearby and still have her enrolled at one in case of another parental catastrophic failure but I don't expect to use it.  I know low fee paying private schools do pastoral care well and are less likely to do the "weed" out of students that do not fit purely the academic mould than the high performing Independent private schools.  I have looked into the public feeder high school and am very happy with what I hear from parents at the primary school with older siblings, we should now be ok.

The low SES school that I taught at for so long has better teachers with a more diverse skill set.    Students quickly identify the weak links in teaching staff and move them on.  Kids that can't cope with the difficult environment move on to low fee private schools or higher SE public schools.  Training of teachers is relentless to ensure best practices are maintained to prevent an unproductive environment.  For kids struggling behaviourally it is a much better environment than a private school where they would be asked to leave and have their basic security challenged whilst they matured.  For them the low SE public school is great as the school wants them and wants to help them mature.

For kids that grow up in the area, can survive the environment, are smart and get access to ATAR programs they wouldn't otherwise, they benefit from intense assistance (without these students the school would lack aspiration and growth).  These kids are the pride of their schools, kids that do succeed, despite all the noise that interrupts their learning.

Given my obvious appreciation of low SE teachers, why did I not send my children there?  My kids  lack the social experiences to deal with the environment, I'll support them to university or whatever they choose, they do not need the extra support to cater to local requirements and don't have the skills to cope with the difficult students.  Their home environment is not what I grew up in and they'll do better in a higher SES school.

I was a strong believer in the values education provided by a low fee private school, particularly the service beyond self ethos.  I acknowledge when done well it is brilliant.  I'm not so sure anymore that it is the norm though (after teaching briefly in one at the start of my career - it was superficial at best), but am open to considering it again - it's just that I've seen the service beyond self ethos in public schools provided by teachers in an authentic way, not forced by curriculum and wonder if this form to kids is more effective.  Rotary Interact clubs are a great substitute for this with a win-win for the community and students, where students decide what they want to benefit and it's not a form of community service enforced slavery, tainting their perception of public service.

So, for me choosing a school, ultimately now is not about league tables - it's about cultural fit.  Choose where your child will thrive and forget the rest - it will follow regardless.  There will be exceptions, but the general rule is this - if it feels wrong it probably is.  Ask some questions, make some changes and if it doesn't improve, if the child is not happy, move them.  You are doing the right thing.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Saddler Methods text and general ideas for improving ATAR results

I've been a proponent of Sadler texts in low SES schools as they are relatively cheap, ramp slowly, have reasonable worked examples and I really like the built in study through the Miscellaneous exercises.  Some teachers really dislike them and prefer the Nelson texts instead and for some students the Nelson text is better.  By doing the Sadler Unit 3 Methods text again to reacquaint myself with the course, it has reminded me of a few pitfalls I have encountered along the way.

There are some tricks to using the Saddler text.

1. Go through each worked example with students identifying explicitly what Saddler wanted students to recognise in each topic.
2. Understand that Saddler does not cover every dot point in the syllabus.  You do need to check what is missing and include it in your programme.
3. Check that students are doing the Miscellaneous questions, otherwise they will miss one of the greatest benefits of the Sadler text.
4. There are few exam level questions in the text.  Ensure students use their revision guide in conjunction with the text.
5. Provide revision papers, prior to tests and exams, to get students to assessment level.  The text does not do this at all.
6. Make connections to the glossary and formula sheet whilst students are learning.
7.  Use a journal to identify key points (eg. get students to put their notes in a seperate book from their exercises) and then generate their page of notes from the journal.
8. Get students to highlight question numbers that are tricky or test corners of the syllabus that may turn up in assessment.
9. Identify which questions may appear in calculator sections and which questions appear in non-calculator sections.
10. Explicitly teach and enforce calculator usage until competency.
11. Make sure students are reaching questions at the end of chapters and not just doing 15 easy questions in class.
12. Do corrections (and go through the assessment) after each assessment.
13. Ensure that students check answers after every exercise (at a minimum) and redo questions that are incorrect.  Preferably in red pen, so that you can see from a distance without interrupting them.
14. Be mindful that some exercises take longer than others when setting homework.  As a safety net, I tell students to stop after 1hr 15 mins and assume that they will do a minimum of 45 mins every night.  If it is the whole class, we continue the exercise the next day.  If just a few students we identify together why they are taking too long and try to remedy it.
15. Extend students with the Nelson text if they are finishing earlier than the rest of the class.  In some cases, get them to use this text instead.

I tell students the following:
a) Do only the first ten questions in each exercise and expect to fail.
b) Do the main exercises only and you may reach 50% on assessments and expect to fail the exam.
c) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, you may reach 50% on assessments and it's possible to pass the exam.
d) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, make good notes, understand the syllabus dot points/glossary, you should reach 50% on assessments and could pass the exam.
e) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, make good notes, understand the syllabus dot points/glossary and use the revision guide, you should do well (60%) on assessments and may pass exams.
f) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, make good notes, understand the syllabus dot points/glossary, use the revision guide and do your corrections thoroughly, you should do well (60%+) on assessments and about the same in the exam.
g) Make a study group prior to exams and allocate content research for revision to each member prior to study meetings to further improve exam results.  Drop members that are not actively contributing.
h) Do as many past papers as you can lay your hands on and have time to complete. Identify any patterns in papers.
i) Do all the past ATAR papers prior to Mock/ATAR exams.

Given the median in exams is over 70%, points g-i are imperative for low SES students to reaching the state mean (not only using Methods as part of your ATAR score).  We would complement above with after school classes, UWA Fairway, ECU Studiosity and summer schools to help students rectify the 2 year gap that they entered high school with.

Natural ability will take some students so far and buck the trend, but usually it catches up with them.  The formula above has worked well with getting average students through the course and though "obvious" took a fair few years to nut out what worked and what was ineffective for larger groups of students (other than just the top four students or students falling behind getting intensive tutoring).