All In The Same Boat

Below is an updated version of a post I wrote last year about cynicism. I’ve tweaked it for the start of a new year to focus on positivity and collegial support in schools.

All In The Same Boat

Melanie Ralph finds that there is a place for negativity at work; just don’t contaminate your whole crew.

Pop culture has long peddled exaggerated stereotypical images of miserable teachers. Some of my favorites include the terrifying Mrs. Trunchbull, the principal in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Mrs. Krabapple, the wry primary school teacher in The Simpsons, and the painfully boring unnamed Economics teacher from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, with his classic monotone drawl as he tries to get a response from his class; “Anyone? Anyone?” These stereotypical representations depict teachers who are burnt out – or strung-out – and disinterested in their role and the success of their students.

All of us, including teachers, have our moments of negativity and pessimism; some research even suggests that sharing gripes and personal struggles in the staffroom can be seen as a form of social-intimacy; a way of solidifying trust. I, for one, am relieved to learn that a little bit of cynicism and negativity isn’t so bad. I recently observed a pillow at my local gym that read “Be Happy All The Time!” In my typical rebellious manner, I chose not be happy in that moment just to spite that pillow.

No one likes phony optimism, however, if we allow frequent and pervasive negativity to consume us we run the risk of becoming emotionally exhausted and cynical, as well as draining those around us. In the face of many realistic stressors, ranging from high-workloads to staff conflicts to vicious attitudes in the community towards our profession, it should come as no surprise that a University of South Australia study which compared 26 occupations revealed teachers to have the second poorest physical health and psychological wellbeing.

One cause of this dismal finding could be the tradition of isolation common to teaching, which can negatively impact teachers in two ways. Firstly, good teachers can be demoralized by a lack of recognition for their efforts. Secondly, teachers who may be struggling tend to not seek support for fear of judgment or humiliation.

Structural approaches can improve the culture of sharing and collaboration, both in formal and informal ways. Education consultant Bill Rogers suggests that creating teams and groups of teachers who have a shared purpose can empower teachers and lift their sense of moral, whilst reducing stress and competitive behaviour.

Beyond formal support networks, it is the deceptively small acts of collegial support that make a bad day more survivable. Examples include positively greeting each other, leaving a funny post-it note on a colleague’s desk, collecting photocopying for others, remembering a birthday, smiling in the corridor or leaving a choccy in a pigeon hole. These small expressions of support indicate a shared knowingness about the challenges of the job, and remind us that we are in fact all in the same boat.

If cynicism is contagious, then so too is kindness, creativity, courage and belief in our colleagues and students. I know which I’d prefer. On the most hectic days in this job, I remind myself of the saying “Attitude is contagious, is yours worth catching?” Anyone? Anyone?

 

Cheers to tough love

On Friday night, I kicked back with some lovely champagne, which was a gift to me from a student. As the year wraps up, I have been given a few little treats from students; mostly chocolates. Thankfully, one student bucked this trend and went for an alcoholic treat. Cheers!

What’s most rewarding, though, is the cards or letters they write to me. No one ever comments about literacy skills they’ve acquired throughout the year, or a specific mark they got for an assessment. No one reminisces back to exams or NAPLAN. What the cards tend to say is more focused on emotions and relationships. I am so heartened to hear that the student has felt safe, respected and valued. I also feel a great sense of pride when they tell me they have felt challenged and have achieved their goals in my class.

Teaching can be fast-paced and downright hectic. Sadly, as Jane Carro writes, “teachers have little time and energy for doing what actually helps kids to learn – and that is making learning creative, unexpected and fun.”  It is unsurprising that teacher-student relationships suffer as well, as “teachers must now spend so much time filling in forms, creating portfolios, describing classroom activities, undertaking risk assessments, justifying their existence and worrying about reporting their ‘outcomes’.”

OK, I often say to myself, deep breaths. Step away from the emails. Step away from the planning and the edu-related websites. Let’s focus on one of the key parts of this job: relationships.

In John Hattie’s article, What Everyone Needs to Know About High-Performance, Teacher Student Relationships, he asserts that “strong teacher student relationships are crucial… and teachers who actively build such relationships have a strong effect on the lives of their students.”

According to Hattie’s research, the three keys to caring relationships are;

  1. Warmth – accept your students for who they are and care for them as a good parent cares for their child. Show them that they are important to you.
  2. Empathy – understand how your students think and feel about what is going on around them.
  3. Time – take the time to physically and mentally present when talking with your students.

This may not seem surprising news at all. However, I think it’s vital to remember that the good results will not just come from a warm smile or inquisitive conversation about Joanie’s pony club meeting on the weekend. What really makes the difference is not only caring, but also pressing students to do well. This comes down to your unwavering belief that the students can succeed, and your ability to press them to do it.

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Hattie goes on to describe four key relational styles. I’ve pasted these style descriptions here directly from the article:

  • Authoritarian teachers show high amounts of press and low amounts of care. While they may want students to learn, they view their relationships with students as an us-vs-them phenomenon, where it is important for them to come out on top. Authoritarian teachers are rigid, and value rules for rule’s sake. They often overact to small infringements, and they are sometimes sarcastic and cynical.
  • Friendly teachers show a high degree of care but a low amount of press. While they may care deeply about students’ self-esteem, they misguidedly accept minimal effort and mediocre work. Friendly teachers let their belief in student-directed learning prevent them from giving students the instruction and guidance they need. This often leads to chaotic classrooms and students working independently on tasks they have not been shown how to do.
  • Aloof teachers show low amounts of press and low amounts of care. While they may go through the motions of teaching, they do so mindlessly. They are often apathetic and indifferent, as their minds are elsewhere – think Bad Teacher. Aloof teachers don’t seek conflict with kids, yet their indifference and lack of structure lead students to act out. Then, over-reactions, escalating conflict and passive-aggressive behaviour often follow.
  • Teachers who forge high-performance relationships care for their students while simultaneously pressing them to excel. They have a passionate desire to help students learn and improve, which leads them to demand high standards of behaviour and effort. Yet, they also value their kids as people and take an interest in their lives. These teachers provide their students with strong guidance (both academically and behaviourally), while also nurturing personal responsibility and self-regulation.

Let’s use the proverb, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’ as an example. In a school context, imagine this horse is a student. The Authoritarian teacher might yell at the horse to drink. The Friendly teacher might sit down next to the horse and discuss the weather. The Aloof teacher might stroll away thinking their duties are complete; after all, they did lead the horse there.

Finally, the high-performance relational style teacher would not stop believing, caring and pressing the horse to drink, no matter how long it took. But there would be a warmth to this pressure, a sort of ‘tough love.’

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While there are so many other components to teaching, if I can make high-performance relationships the foundation of my teaching, I know I am heading in the right direction!

Have a great Holiday season and I’ll see you in 2017!

 

Engagement: The First Stepping Stone to Learning

Teaching is a complex task and there could never be a simple guide to efficiency. I’m still learning how to be the best the teacher I can be, and as the educational consultant, Dylan Wiliam says, what makes it the best job in the world is that you never get any good at it, every teacher can improve.

Ok so this idea could be a little depressing – and I think we can get good at teaching, but we must be open to continuous improvement. A key question of his that I use as a guide is: What could I change about my teaching that’s going to make the biggest difference to my students?

The following blog posts will cover some of the answers I’ve settled on at this stage of my career, and which I shared recently at the The English Teachers Association of Queensland English Communication Forum.

If you walk past a colleague’s classroom and hear students silently completing work, are they engaged? If you walk past a loud, chaotic class, are students engaged? How do we truly know when students are engaged?

When I was developing my presentation for the ETAQ forum, and trying to articulate engagement, I thought of it as a kind of magical illusion by some cheesy Las Vegas magicians like Siegfied and Roy. I thought, perhaps if we stare long enough into books and theories about engagement, we will capture it?!

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There must be something magical about engagement given the endless drive of educational researchers and millions of teachers to capture this ambiguous, lovely thing.

 American educator Charlotte Danielson refers to engagement as the “centerpiece” for teaching, which all other teaching components contribute to. In the following blog posts, I hope to explore engagement in a meaningful way which goes beyond the idea of students merely being ‘on task’ and ‘busy’ but instead being, as Danielson describes, “intellectually active in learning important and challenging content.” It’s not just about good classroom behaviour or attendance, but a connection with learning.

Engagement is a dynamic construct, not a one-type-of-engagement fits all. The truth is, what works with Year 8 English in period 1, may not work in the context of, say, Year 10 English on a Friday afternoon.

If engagement was a carousel at a fair; some students would want to get on the carousel, while others want to be on the dodgems. Some don’t even want to come to the fair at all!

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How do we get them onboard? Well, for some students, they might not have been invited to the fair in a really long time. I love this quote from William Purkey, from his book Inviting School Success,

“No human being can force another to learn.

No human being can force another to take advice.

The decision to learn is in the possession of the learner NOT the teacher.

The teacher can only INVITE.

Success depends on the strength of the invitation.”

Teachers are not magicians, but engagement is magical when it happens.

All students need us to vary the way we invite them to learn and we need to always keep the RSVP open.

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Hold Your Tongue

One school holiday I took a pottery class. While attempting to shape a ceramic cereal bowl on a pottery wheel, the instructor asked me “Are you a teacher?” Shocked that he could pick this so easily, I told him I was. He replied, “I can tell. You are trying so hard to control the clay instead of letting it move.”

While my, uh, quirky (?) ceramic cereal bowl may not have been specific or orderly, the experience was certainly meaningful and memorable.

I tell this story as it relates to one of the best education-related quotes I’ve heard in a long time. Again, it is by American author and lecturer Alfie Kohn;

“Good teachers have teeth marks on their tongues.”

Sometimes teachers need to let go. Sometimes we need to shut up, because, as Alfie Kohn asserts;

“Deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly. Teaching, like parenting and managing, is greatly improved by following a four-word admonition: Talk less, ask more.”

When testing and assessment, time pressure and content drive our pedagogy, it’s easy for teachers to talk too much and control too much. But it’s paramount that we reflect on our practice, hush up a bit and relinquish some control.

In Alison King’s excellent article From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side, she explores the outdated teaching model of the teacher as “the one who has the knowledge”; who transmits it to students, as if their brains were a container. In this ‘transmittal’ model, students are passive, rather than active, learners. King argues this model is ineffective for 21st Century learners, who will “be expected to think for themselves, pose and solve complex problems, and generally produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.”

Similarly, John Dewey describes “the old education” as an approach in which “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself.”

So, what should we shift to? The change needed, or the Copernicus-like ‘revolution’ as Dewey describes it, is, “the shifting of the center of gravity… the child becomes the sun about which the appliances of education revolve; he is the center about which they are organized.”

King asserts that in order to achieve this shift, teachers must move to orchestrate the context, be the facilitator and provide resources which encourage students to think up their own answers. In essence, teachers must hold their tongues more often; be less of a sage and more of a guide.

Film yourself teaching and you may notice the moments when you ‘fill in the blanks’ for students, or give the answer too soon. You may be doing the thinking for the students and cherry-picking information you deem most important. Perhaps you are presenting a topic in a way which limits critical thinking or problem solving; essentially, filling the empty containers who sit before you. Ask yourself, are students active or passive?

Rather than just memorizing information, active learning means “getting involved with the information presented…really thinking about it” (King). It involves analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating, and according to King, it “always leads to deeper understanding.” Students must be prompted to engage in active learning, and King suggests that for every major topic we cover, we must accompany it with an opportunity for students to generate meaning in an active way. For example, King lists think-pair-share, peer questioning and group work (amongst many others) as strategies to increase student achievement. These strategies are in no way earth shattering, but the focus on active learning must be embedded into our regular practice if students are to become the critical thinkers and creative problem solvers that the  twenty-first century demands.

The benefits of holding our tongues are profound. According to Kohn, when teachers share the power with their students, “One’s job becomes a good deal more interesting” because “allowing people to make decisions about what happens to them is inherently preferable to controlling them.”

It’s important to note that being a ‘guide on the side’ does not mean less work for the teacher. “There is no zero-sum game in which more responsibility for the children means less for the adults. Helping students to participate effectively takes talent and patience and hard work,” suggests Kohn.

It’s easy to fall into patterns and habits in our teaching, and miss the opportunities for increased student ownership and participation. If teachers can be open-minded, flexible and reflective, then not only will students benefit in terms of their well-being, behaviour and academic achievement, but it could also transform the role that we play as teachers, or ‘guides’.

Image credit: http://londondesigncollective.com/
Image credit: http://londondesigncollective.com/

No Hidden Agenda: Safe Schools simply promotes safer schools

When reminiscing back to your sexual education experience in school, what images and emotions come to mind? At my regional Queensland high school in the late-1990s, sexual education involved being subjected to generic information about heterosexual relationships, how to use contraception, and how to label anatomical diagrams of penises and vaginas. For the straight students, these experiences were likely embarrassing at worst, and humorous at best. But, for a closeted young teenager who was already well aware that I was not straight, the silencing of a queer perspective left me feeling confused and alone.

Needless to say, when I learned about Victoria’s Safe School Coalition, a movement towards including diverse perspectives on sexuality and gender within the existing heterosexual-focused sexual education curriculum, I felt a sense of relief for the youth in schools today. If there had been such consideration for diversity during my time in high school, I dare say I wouldn’t have wanted to pretend to be anything other than who I am.

Critics of Safe School’s educational resource, titled All Of Us, are fearful that the “LGBTI agenda” is covertly being pushed. If Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s stance is valid, that this resource is a form of “social engineering,” then it would follow that an unwavering focus on straight perspectives and reproduction more generally in sexual education is also a form of social engineering, one that begets a homophobic society by pushing a straight agenda, to the detriment of queer youth in terms of their mental health and feelings of belonging. Bernardi does have one thing right: schools are institutions of social engineering. However, he fails to acknowledge that without resources such as All of Us, the kind of engineering that is already taking place in Australian schools is the kind that produces a society ripe with prejudice and exclusionary beliefs about sexuality and gender. With programs like All of Us, we are engineering a society characterized by acceptance and tolerance. Isn’t that a good thing?

Let us not forget the purpose of this program: to create a safe place for youth who might otherwise be discriminated against in their schools. According to Beyond Blue, the mental health of LGBTI people is among the poorest in Australia. LGBTI folk are the most likely to commit suicide of any population in Australia, with discrimination and exclusion listed as key causal factors. If policy makers were to abolish All of Us, they would be ignoring these tragic statistics and the vital role schools can play in abating mental health issues for LGBTI youth. While Cori Bernadi might think schools are simply a place for students to learn to, “read, write, and do their maths,” many of us recall that school is about much more than just reading and writing.

As a high school English teacher who has worked for over 8 years in Australia, Canada and the UK, my experience has been that youth of the 21st century are more curious about international trends and topical issues than ever before. Subsequently, my classroom involves more than simply learning how to be literate. Daily, I witness a keen interest from my students to ask questions about the world they live in. As a result, my classes often involve passionate discussions about world trends, one of which is the increasing inclusion of queer perspectives in pop culture. For adults who grew up in previous eras, such a pop culture phenomenon might be alarming. But for the youth growing up with queer sensibilities in their face everywhere they look on TV, magazines, and the internet: it’s their reality, and they’re curious. By extension, through implementing a resource such as All of Us, policy makers have illustrated that modern schools are places for more than learning literacy and numeracy; they are cultural institutions that have the capacity to ‘socially engineer’ a more tolerant population.

It is vital to acknowledge the positive effects of inclusive programs such as All of Us. For example, The Australian Human Rights Commission states that youth feel safer in schools with protective policies, and are “50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school,” suffering less homophobia, self-harm, and are at less risk of attempting suicide. In addition, research suggests that Canadian anti-homophobic school programs, which began in1998 and have now proliferated across the nation, positively impact students regardless of their sexual orientation, as students in general experience less discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. It would seem that Canada has socially engineered a happier society characterized by acceptance. And how is that a bad thing?

Once critics cool off and stop politicizing a program aimed at promoting tolerance and safety, educational communities can get back to what it is they are passionate about: creating an inclusive environment where they can make a positive difference to the lives of all young people.

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Go to http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org.au/all-of-us for more information about the program

On ‘expert’ vs ‘experienced’

A few months ago I came across a very short video in which education researcher and professor John Hattie explains the difference between ‘experienced’ teachers and ‘expert’ teachers. This interested me as I have often felt that many people assume that older teachers are more effective than either the first-year teachers or those in the beginning years of their career.

I thought to myself, is it really only age and time that impact the skill level of a teacher? Surely the longer you do something your skill level should improve, right? It turns out, Hattie explains, “Years of experience doesn’t cut it. It’s not enough.” Instead, Hattie suggests that “Expert teachers do differ from experienced teachers – particularly on the way they represent their classrooms, the degree of challenges that they present to students, and most critically, in the depth of processing that their students attain.”

Hattie has identified that it is not the number of years you have been teaching that makes you an ‘expert,’ but a set of identifiable traits that every teacher can aspire to, whether they are first-year teachers or in the later part of their career. Essentially, ‘experienced’ means time, not necessarily expertise.

According to Hattie’s report “Distinguishing Expert Teachers from Novice and Experienced Teachers,” expert teachers;

  • can identify essential representations of their subject,
  • can guide learning through classroom interactions,
  • can monitor learning and provide feedback,
  • can attend to affective attributes, and
  • can influence student outcomes

Within these five categories, 16 sub categories are outlined– not to provide a checklist, but more of a ‘profile’ of an expert teacher. Some highlights from these categories for me include;

  •  Expert teachers can anticipate, plan, and improvise as required by the situation
  • Expert teachers are skillful in keeping the lesson on track and accomplishing their objectives, while also allowing students’ questions and comments as springboards for discussions.
  • Expert teachers are more effective scanners of classroom behaviour, make greater references to the language of instruction and learning of students, whereas experienced teachers concentrate more on what the teacher is doing and saying to the class and novices concentrate more on student behaviour.
  • The picture drawn of experts is one of involvement and caring for the students, a willingness to be receptive to what the students need, not attempting to dominate the situation. Too often experienced teachers tended to create more physical and psychological distance between themselves and their students than do experts.
  • Expert teachers can easily describe mental plans for their lessons. These mental plans typically include a general sequence of lesson components and content, although they did not include details such as timing, or pacing the exact number of examples and problems. These aspects of instruction were determined during the class session on the basis of student questions and responses.

Hattie describes that for the expert teacher, “It wasn’t a smooth process and they were prepared to live with that; classrooms needed to be open to welcome error,” whereas “experienced teachers were much more concerned with running a smooth, orderly show.”

To create a mental image, I think of the difference between a barnacle and a sea anemone – one is closed and attached like glue to its orderly ways, while the other soaks up those vibrant and valuable learning moments that so often cannot be planned, and frequently involve error. Term 1 is in full swing and for me this has been timely reading. If you’re feeling a little stuck, dislodge yourself. It’s never too late and the rewards are evidently profound.

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sea anemone

Fight Against Cynicism – Why you should say yes and bother

It’s been a little while between posts lately – I’ve been busy job hunting for 2016! I’ve had a particular blog post on my mind for a few months now and my topic of interest this time is teacher stereotypes and cynicism, particularly cynicism of teachers and the way this can spread, infect and disadvantage not only teachers, but also students.

Pop culture has long projected exaggerated caricatures of a certain teacher stereotype; one who is angry, miserable and disinterested in their role as a teacher and the success of their students. Some of my favorites include the terrifying Mrs. Trunchball, the principal in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Mrs. Krabapple, the wry primary school teacher in The Simpsons and the painfully boring unnamed Economics teacher from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, with his classic monotone drawl as he tries to get a response from his class; “Anyone? Anyone?”

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Ok, so thankfully we do occasionally get a different teacher stereotype; even it if it is a little cheesy. Teachers such as Robin Williams’ John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, Hillary Swank as Erin Gruell in The Freedom Writers, and Jack Black as Dewey Finn in School of Rock, all embody the joy, passion and drive of the stereotypical ‘inspiring teacher’.

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Sometimes I’m struck by the ways in which teachers emulate some of these stereotypical qualities; the good and the bad! We can all have our moments of cynicism; there’s even increasing research that proves that strategic negativity can actually be useful and contribute to happiness. However, according to educator and blogger Alex Quigley, the most damaging quality a teacher can posses is cynicism. He refers to a metaphor by author Hywel Roberts, who defines two types of teachers; those who ‘drain’, and those who ‘radiate’. The characteristics of ‘drain’ teachers can manifest as a fixed mindset of student ability, placing blame on students when they themselves have failed, and condemning students to failure.

The always-interesting Dr. Richard Curwin warns that cynicism can spread through a school, potentially destroying the atmosphere and the learning. He’s listed some symptoms to look out for:

  1. You check your watch before your first cup of coffee or before nine AM to see how much longer until you can go home.
  2. What you teach becomes more important than who you teach.
  3. You begin believing that nothing works with “these” kids, that they are beyond hope.
  4. Every day feels the same.
  5. You often wonder why no one is doing anything to make life better for you.
  6. You have lost your own love of learning. Tedium has replaced wonder.

With these symptoms in mind, what can be done and what is it that the ‘radiator’ teachers do differently? Hywel states that “‘radiator’ teachers  have “botherdness, warmth and generosity of spirit”, with a growth mindset about the ability of their students. Additionally, Quigely suggests that another antidote to cynicism is humility: “The best teachers I know are incredibly humble. Indeed, they often appear to lack confidence in their ability, such is their deep-seated humility. This leads them towards seeking out new knowledge, willingly adapting what they do and constantly striving towards self-improvement.”

Stephen Colbert, American comedian , beautifully describes cynicism:

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge.”

As 2015 comes to a close, and the hectic pace of Term 4 takes hold, I hope this post prompts you to consider these points, reflect on your own contribution to the morale of both the staffroom and your classroom, and to keep your focus on self-improvement. Rock on, and spread the ‘botherdness’!

The Learning Zone

While taking a tour around Ross Parker’s blog recently, I came across his lovely graphic of “The Learning Zone” – another term to describe what Vygotsky essentially outlines with his “Zone of Proximal Development” concept. I won’t lie: I haven’t thought about Vygotsky since my uni days – so this mini refresher was really useful!

From Simply Pshycology.org: “Vygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky believed that when a student is in the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task.”

So Vygotsky’s ZPD would look something like this:

ZPD

This ‘guidance’ and ‘encouragement’ is often synonymous with the term ‘scaffolding’, coined by Wood et al. (1976). Scaffolding (i.e. assistance) is “most effective when the support is matched to the needs of the learner” (Link).

Debbie Silver, in her article ‘Using the Zone To Help Reach Every Learner’ (2011), outlines these guidelines for scaffolding instruction:

  • Assess the learner’s current knowledge and experience for the academic content.
  • Relate content to what students already understand or can do.
  • Break a task into small, more manageable tasks with opportunities for intermittent feedback.
  • Use verbal cues and prompts to assist students.

Parker’s graphic:
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So, too much scaffolding would land you in the ‘comfort zone’ of Parker’s image, however, too little scaffolding would land you in the ‘Terror zone’. What I love about this graphic is that the blue ‘learning’ zone is quite small. To me, this indicates how much of an art form it really is for teachers to effectively match the level of scaffolding they offer with the individual needs of each student. Every day our challenge as teachers is to foster our students’ ability to succeed within that sweet spot of the ‘blue zone’.

It’s time to see the light!

In every classroom I’ve ever taught in, I’ve had complaints from students about the lighting. “It’s too bright, Miss!” or “I’ve got a headache let’s turn off the lights!” For me personally, I am not a fan of the classic high school fluorescent lighting. And I’m not just talking about the fact that it is rarely flattering. I have actually noticed that it frequently impacts student engagement. When I have turned the lights out and opened the blinds to increase the natural lighting, I’ve had comments from teachers walking past my room: “Turn the lights on in here, Ms. Ralph,” they’ll say, “the students can’t learn when it’s this dark!” Can’t learn? This got me thinking: how important is the lighting in a classroom? The research which I’ll briefly outline in this post would suggest that it is a vital, and often overlooked, component of creating an optimal learning environment.

Obviously, before electricity, schools relied on daylight to illuminate the classroom. However, gradually, classroom design became disconnected from the outside world when there was wide-spread installation of cheap, hideously bright fluorescent lighting in schools. With more and more research revealing the impact of lighting on student achievement, the challenge for school administrators and designers will be how to best incorporate natural light into the design of modern classrooms. Oh yeah, and natural light is free!

Lighting is not only related to academic improvements, but physical too. Jensen, in his fabulous book ‘Brain-Based Learning’, reveals that bright lighting, particularly, fluorescent lighting, “seemed to create restless, fidgety learners.” In comparison, “Low-level lighting seemed to have a calming effect.” Jensen also outlines a study of 160,000 children (aged 11-12), in which over 50% of participants were found to have deficiencies relating to classroom lighting. The same children were tested 6 months later, after the lighting in the learning environment had been changed, and it was found that 65% of visual problems had reduced, fatigue reduced by 55% and even posture problems reduced by 25%. Interestingly, the quality of lighting has also been found to improve attendance. A study in Alberta, Canada, over a two-year period, found that students in full-spectrum lit (lighting which emulates natural light) classrooms had fewer days of absence per year as well as enhanced health effects.

I hope that in the construction of any new school this information is taken into account. But what about the millions of schools that were built ages ago? Well, in this report about daylight in American schools, it is demonstrated that budgeting and funding can be used in inventive and innovative ways to make changes in new and older schools.

In the report, Principal Tom Benton, of Durant Middle School in North Carolina, explains the many design changes that the school underwent, including the addition of energy-saving air-circulation controls as well as roof monitors to increase daylight in classrooms. Benton explains “day lit classrooms have increased the well-being of the students and the teachers and it is at least partly responsible for the record high attendance rates.” Additionally, the school is saving $21,000 annually by saving energy. Architect Ken Kaestner of Ken Kaestner and Associates, asserts “You have to make the most of the funds you have by taking away from certain areas and putting it towards the good stuff such as the skylights.”

CY Middle School
CY Middle School – Ok so this is what happens when high-end architects  build a school! Natural light flows in from the skylight.
Fairmeadow Elementary School
Fairmeadow Elementary School – daylight flowing into the space
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With bright lights and no windows, this space is destined to diminish student engagement.

Take the punches, and smile back.

I first came across Phil Beadle years ago on YouTube. Phil is an English teacher, education consultant, author, teacher trainer and speaker. Nowadays, I regularly check in on his blog, particularly to see his journalism for The Guardian.

As an English teacher, Phil is really innovative and has a history of achieving ‘transformational’ results with students in working class areas and who experience challenging circumstances. He’s also very charismatic, and brings a rock-star quality to his teaching. I’ve watched a full lesson he gave on punctuation, and if you think commas are boring then think again! Phil was also part of a British TV show called ‘The Unteachables’ – a reality show where some of Britain’s best teachers work to improve the results and engagement of some seriously at-risk kids. This is way more appealing to me than Dance Moms.

The video I’ve posted below was one that really struck me because he just seemed to have such a cool, calm attitude towards teaching and behaviour management. Particularly for first year teachers, or just as a reminder to more experienced teachers, this overview of tips from his book “How To Teach” is a great intro to Phil’s style. His tips on how to manage a transition in a lesson and using praise effectively are excellent. I also love his quote about homework, in which he describes a father saying to his son, “You know what son, if they can’t teach you everything you need to learn during the day, they’re not very good at their jobs, are they?” (Stay tuned for a post about homework!)

What about when it all just goes wrong? I love Phil’s advice on the class that is just plain horrible. Firstly, he says, “don’t take it personally…secondly, you have to take the punches and smile back. What they are seeking is some kind of negative reaction from you.” The last thing the class needs is a teacher who loses control. In fact, Phil stresses, “The horribler they get, the nicer you are to them.”

Enjoy Phil!

Check out his full website here.