“Coming out” at school

This article first appeared on the Guardian Teacher Blog on 30th January 2012.

“Coming out” at school

Why I opened up about my sexuality at school and urge other gay teachers to do the same

In early 2009 I decided that it was time for me to do something a bit brave. I sat down with the head at the school where I teach, told him I was gay, and that I wanted to be open about it with the students. He was incredibly supportive and welcomed my suggestion that I could, in addition, do a whole-school assembly to help raise the profile of the issue of sexuality and homophobia.

When it came to “coming out”, I dithered for quite some time as I had no idea how to approach the subject. Eventually in a year 11 physics lesson a student noticed me absent-mindedly playing with my engagement ring (I had recently proposed to my boyfriend) and said “ooh watch out sir, if you drop that your girlfriend will be really angry”.

I quietly replied “it’s a he actually, I’m getting married to a man”. A wave a silence swept the classroom, followed by a barrage of curious questions. “How come you’re gay sir, you don’t sound camp?” and “But you don’t sound at all like [an openly gay student in the year]” or “Is it legal to marry a man then?” We spent a few minutes calmly discussing it and then carried on with the lesson without any problems – I even managed a proper plenary! I was truly relieved, and somewhat surprised that there had been not even the slightest hint of a critical or negative reaction. In fact one student, a very imposing Asian boy, said to me at the end of the lesson “seriously sir, that was big – pretty sick… respect for being honest.”

Since then I’ve done short, age-appropriate assemblies to every year at school on the meaning of words such as “gay”, “lesbian”, “transvestite”, “transgender”, and about the effect of using “gay” as a derogatory word. I’ve done other assemblies on the structure and growth of the teenage brain and why it makes coming out particularly hard.

I’ve never received any negative feedback from a single student, teacher, or parent – quite the opposite in fact. I had one anonymous letter from a student thanking me for “making a huge difference to his life”, and I’ve had a couple of students telling me they’re gay, but that’s about it. My sexuality is rarely discussed with students in class, but on the rare occasions it is relevant and called-for (eg they ask a me a direct and appropriate question) then it is easily and honestly dealt with. I even have friendly questions from colleagues about how gay marriages work, who proposes to who, and what the stand is these days on gay adoptions etc.

As it happens I was also once a student at this very same school, and being a boys comprehensive in the early 90s it felt like a pretty tough place for a kid who was confused about his sexuality. In those days the message came through loud and clear that gay = bad, whether it was from my peers calling each other “gay” or “queerboy” when someone got too close or did something annoying, or from PE teachers who criticised weaker boys for being “pansies”. I didn’t know anyone who was gay, my parents never talked about anyone gay, and the only gay people in the media were either incredibly camped up comedians and actors or radical and aggressive gay rights campaigners, and I knew that I didn’t relate to any of them.

My family seemed to assume I’d get married at some point, and I wrongly assumed that I would horribly disappoint them if I told them I was gay. I couldn’t bear the thought of talking to my friends, who I thought (wrongly again) might turn away from me. I kept all issues about my sexuality hidden from view, and while I very grudgingly acknowledged to myself that I might have “bisexual urges”, I refused to admit that I could possibly be gay. This self-repression and confusion carried on in a different way through university, where I had girlfriends and boyfriends, but no relationship worked out as my intellectual conclusion that I refused to accept being gay conflicted with my true sexuality.

Finally, some years later two massive events shocked me in to truly coming to terms with my feelings. The first was my mother’s death from lung cancer, and the second was my own diagnosis with a rare and potentially fatal liver disease that led to a life-saving liver transplant in 2009. The counselling I received during these difficult years helped me come to terms with my sexuality, and when I watched the inspirational filmMilk (about the life of a gay activist in the 70s) while recovering in hospital I decided that I needed to do something to make sure no students at my school ever went through the same bad times that I had. I promised myself that no student should feel there was nobody to talk to or have to hide their true selves, and that every student should know at least one positive gay role-model.

My school already had an outstanding record on dealing with bullying and promoting equality, but I hope very much that my actions have made life just a little bit easier for gay students and made an already tolerant school that little bit better. I know there are other gay teachers who are afraid to be open about their sexuality, and I’d like to urge them all to consider it – do it for yourselves, do it for your students, and do it to reduce inequality and bigotry in the whole of society. This isn’t about making an aggressive political stand, it is just that nothing fosters tolerance and understanding like getting people to realise they know and work with a person who is happily gay.

• David Weston is a secondary school teacher and an educationconsultant at Informed Education. You can follow him on Twitter@informed_edu.


GoodCPDGuide launch

GoodCPDGuide logo

We have launched GoodCPDGuide.com in public beta!

We’re delighted to announce that we’ve launched our website in public beta, and to make it even better, the whole site is now completely free for teachers, schools and training providers.

Our site includes training courses, consultancy services, masters qualifications, videos, books, and podcasts. All providers can sign up and add their professional development services at no cost, and we never charge any commission. We’ve already got over 300 courses and resources listed with more appearing every day, and we already feature some big names in CPD such as the Institute of Physics, the ASCL union’s MAPS CPD service, University of Hertfordshire and Creative Education as well as a selection of great books from Amazon.

We take quality very seriously and all providers are required to agree to our Code of Practice. Any user in our community may write a review of anything in the database to rate their the quality of delivery, impact on their professional practice and the standard of facilities and service provided. This allows users to share their experiences, both good and bad, and we allow providers the right-to-reply to anything written about them. We are also working on an exciting collaboration with CUREE to create a quality assurance kite-mark that can only be obtained after an inspection of the course being delivered.

GoodCPDGuide is now a non-profit social enterprise to make sure that we can really make a difference to teachers and provide high-quality relevant CPD, with the aim to commission research in to the best way for schools and providers to deliver great training. We also hope to organise a conference to bring together schools and providers in innovative and exciting ways.

So, if you’re a school looking to deliver training, offer an outstanding practitioner for consultancy or simply seeking the most effective professional development out there then sign up to our website and receive updates as we bring on board the very best in CPD.

If you’re a training provider, higher education institution, subject association or consultancy service then sign up and list your code-compliant courses and services for free.

If you’re a potential sponsor or you’d like to collaborate with us then do get in touch.

Enjoy the site, we hope it becomes your one-stop-shop for quality CPD.

How to create a positive culture in schools and classrooms

Leading a group of people, whether in industry, as a school leader, or as a teacher in a class, you encounter people who are supportive and some who are in general opposition to what you want to do. Anthony Muhammad captures this idea very clearly in his book Transforming School Culture although it is applicable in every situation where you have to manage a group of people.

The key idea is that you can categorise people in three broad groups: believers, inbetweeners and opposers.

The believers are the ones who engage with your ideas and are optimistic about the chances of everyone improving as a result. They will typically engage with their work quietly but enthusiastically, often avoiding challenging more negative people around them as their energy tends to be focused on the task in hand.

Inbetweeners are those who are new in to the group. If it is a completely new role for them then they may take many months to decide where their loyalties lie and the level of their engagement and enthusiasm. Those who have come from a previous establishment will take less time to decide whether to assume a new position or whether to revert to the same type as they were previously.

Finally there are those who fall generally in to the opposition camp. They may be reluctant to follow your ideas and may complain and undermine your leadership or authority. Broadly, this group can be grouped in these four categories:

  • those who oppose some or all of the current ideas and policies because they do not know or believe the reason behind them,
  • those who will not engage with new initiatives due to a lack of trust or belief in the leadership,
  • those who are too anxious to engage with any new ideas due to their own stress or lack of ability to cope,
  • those who define themselves by their opposition to certain ideology, to leadership, or to change.

I’m sure you can identify people in your organisation or students in your class who are clear examples of these types, and others who take up different roles in different situations.

For any leader or teacher it is vitally important that you gradually change the culture of your organisation or class so that the believers hold sway. If the opposition becomes dominant then everything becomes a battle of will – an unpleasant and unproductive situation.

The first important step in improving this balance is to identity your believers. Publicly and privately support and praise these positive individuals and put them with new members of the group or class (the inbetweeners). If you can give your believers the confidence to stand up to the destructive negativity of the opposition then it makes a massive difference to the culture of the group. In fact if someone who is being negative realises that they are losing social status by doing so then it is one of the most powerful ways to change their behaviour. This will only happen following your lead. It is very important that every leader and teacher stands up firmly to reject back-biting and destructive negativity, while being entirely open to reasonable discussion and criticism.

The next step is to try and win round your opposition. The first type simply need to be heard and engaged openly. Often an honest discussion and explanation of both the reasons and long term plan behind any new ideas will be enough to win these people round. When teachers make a change in working style they often have to appeal to the students to be patient, try out the new style, and take it on trust that things will improve. When management impose new requirements that will be initially difficult then once again they may need to draw on trust that has been built up.

The second type are opposing things precisely because they don’t trust the person leading them. Every teacher has experienced a class of students who have low levels of trust and refuse to cooperate with any new ideas as they don’t feel valued and don’t believe that their interests are being considered. The key here is to genuinely and honestly engage and listen, to try and make amends for previous breaches of trust, to demonstrate your trust in your students or colleagues, and to recognise their hard work and effort through both structured and spontaneous praise/recognition. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a short time to lose it. A key task of any teacher or leader is to try and build good rapport and a high level of trust so that at difficult moments of change or stress they can draw on this. The best teachers are seen as fair and trustworthy and their students genuinely believe that they are doing their best for them. This will have been demonstrated repeatedly. The same is entirely true of leaders of adults.

The third group may or may not feel that the leader or teacher is trustworthy and that the rules are sound but they simply don’t believe in their own ability to succeed, and would rather stand in opposition rather than be exposed. Some students typically truant or misbehave when they don’t believe they can do the work required of them. Fear of failure leads to a failure to engage. In some schools you see teachers who are afraid to try new things as they are so lacking in confidence in their own existing abilities that they dare not move away from their existing practice which is marginally less terrifying and depressing than something new. This is a difficult group to win around as you have to first of all build up their own ability and self-confidence. This requires a large amount of trust, commitment and belief from a mentor, teacher or leader. There are deeply psychological elements to be dealt with here, both to gradually build a sense of greater wellbeing and to instil an ability to recognise and deal with internal negativity.

The final type of opposition will usually have started out as one of the previous three types, but in an absence of any suitable engagement they have begun to define themselves as a ‘rebel’ or as someone whose duty it is to oppose leadership or certain ideology. Once in this state of mind it is incredibly difficult for leaders and teachers to engage with this type of person as they (the leader) are viewed as the source of all problems. In order for this sort of person to engage they would have to give up part of their identity, to admit they are wrong, and to effectively apologise for much that they have done. This is incredibly difficult to do. Often the best solution here is to give someone a brand new start elsewhere (as an inbetweener) with a lot of hard work to pair them with believers and build trust. If these students or colleagues have to stay in place then the only other way is to attempt to positively define them in other ways in the hope that they take this new identity on board. For a persistent rebellious student this may be by finding opportunities for them to succeed, by trying new activities, or by encouraging peers to engage first. This type of person will be naturally suspicious that any engagement will be an attempt to get them to give up their identity though.

Leadership roles (including teaching) are incredibly demanding even before these people-management skills are considered, but with a little conscious thought about the type of people you lead or teach you can find more appropriate ways to bring about positive change.

The three cycles of great teaching

So you want to be a great teacher? The key is to understand the learning and assessment cycle, and know the three key ways to use it.

Quick test: what’s wrong with this statement?

Teach a topic –> Assess the topic –> Feed back –> Start again.

Bog standard it may be, but it’s also poor practice. Avoid assuming every student is ready to start at the same place by actually finding out what they know first, and planning accordingly. Here’s one version of the learning cycle for a topic that we discuss when I deliver training sessions.

  1. Assess first. Assess the students’ prior understanding, prior attainment, and capacity to learn (e.g. work ethic, habits and attitude).
  2. Teach/Prompt. Provide appropriate instruction/tasks to do one or more of the following:
    1. fill gaps in ‘foundation’ knowledge,
    2. challenge misconceptions,
    3. present new knowledge,
    4. embed new knowledge and link it to other topics,
    5. give students the ability to self-assess,
    6. inspire/stretch students,
    7. improve capacity to learn.
  3. Assess again. Check the resulting level of attainment and check on misconceptions that may have arisen (or been uncovered).
  4. Provide feedback, and suggest the next appropriate task (step 2 again).

That may sounds like quite a lot, but this cycle could be summarised as:

Assess –> Teach/prompt –> Assess again –> Feedback –> Start again…

The key to make this great teaching is to consider this cycle over three separate time-scales.

  • Within the lesson. Every lesson should contain mini cycles that start with assessment, or follow from a previous one. Any good methods of questioning will help here. Cycles can occur to encompass small tasks, to break up larger ones, or in conversation with students as they work on something more extended.
  • Between lessons. Use information gathered from marking exercise books, from homeworks and from online assessments to assess learning. Plan larger tasks or series of tasks for the next one to three lessons. Check the outcomes both within the class and also between lessons.
  • Long term. Use prior attainment data to assess learning (and current capacity to learn) when students start a new topic or course. Plan appropriate tasks to address the attainment. Use formal assessments or exams to compare students’ progress to other classes and to agreed standards. Using this information you can evaluate your teaching and locate/share good practice in your department. You can also plan bigger interventions to address low attainment and poor capacity to learn, and you can create extension tasks for high attainers.

This is the key to teacher greatness:

  • constantly evaluating the level of student learning
  • self-evaluating the effectiveness of your own teaching.

Use each learning cycle to adjust and improve your practice and make these adjustments:

  1. in the short term: within each class,
  2. in the medium term: between classes in lesson planning,
  3. in the long term: between topics/courses.

Of course all of this comes alongside confident behaviour management, strong interpersonal skills, outstanding organisation, deep subject knowledge, etc., but the heart of any lesson is the learning. Crack that, and you’re on your way.

Contact Informed Education if you would like a training session run at your school on using data and assessment for better teaching.

10 ways to keep your teachers happy

Nothing gives a school purpose and energy like an enthusiastic and motivated staff. However, there are so many things that can wear teachers down and this can put a dampener on any prospect of improvement, let along keeping momentum going. As a leader, there are many sound and simple ways for you to keep teachers motivated, enthusiastic and engaged. Here are a few:

  1. Recognise and celebrate passion. Simply put, nobody gets in to teaching for money or fame. Even if they’re tired, unhappy or bitter, every teacher got in to their job because they were passionate about sharing their love of a subject and about helping young people learn and develop in to wonderful adults. Even at the toughest times it is a good idea to ask your staff to recall their career highs and treasured memories, and demonstrate in your actions that you genuinely want them to have more lessons that they love delivering. The best lessons need to have outstanding learning, and should be enjoyable for students and staff. No student ever got enthused by an unhappy teacher. Even at the moments of greatest frustration with a colleague, remember that they got in to this profession for the right reasons.
  2. Start with the positive, and enthuse. Make it a rule that you notice the wonderful things that are going on in your school. Ask people to tell you about their best lessons that day, week, or term, and really listen to them. Be receptive and enthuse with your words and body language. Show that you are happy for them. Ask what you could do to help them have more moments like that. (Leaders who do this actually feel better about themselves.)
  3. Collaborate. Encourage teachers to work together. Offer training in giving positive, useful, constructive advice. Give them the time, space and resources to jointly plan lessons, observe each other and offer supportive feedback. Encourage everyone to share good ideas on staffroom walls, mailing lists and in online forums.
  4. Give time. Scrutinise every new initiative incredibly carefully, and realise that every five minutes spent on paperwork is five minutes less spent on creating quality learning, assessing student work, and meeting students one-to-one. Every initiative has value, but is it really more important than delivering quality teaching and learning? Is there a way of achieving the same outcomes with a much lower impact on time?
  5. Be pro-actively receptive. Having an open-door policy is a great start, although many people won’t feel brave enough to come to you unless a problem has got pretty big. Get out and about, engage, listen, offer help. Sit down with middle managers and staff and ask how they are doing.
  6. Share the bad times. If there’s something that you know isn’t going to go down too well, make sure you’re seen to be suffering at least as much. About to introduce a new requirement in lessons? Make sure senior leaders have to implement it first, and leave it optional for everyone else for a while. Need to ramp up the performance observations? Invite other staff in to observe and constructively support senior leaders’ teaching before you impose your observations on them.
  7. Recognise the key stress times. Ends of terms, report-writing and exam-marking times are really tough, especially for colleagues with lots of classes. Avoid new initiatives and stresses during these times, and if you can be seen to offer to lend a hand with lessons, planning, and duties at these times it will go down a treat!
  8. Be flexible. You need to be accommodating when staff ask for time off. If a colleague has an outside interest then be as flexible as you can. A decision to refuse someone a day off for their championship cycle race will only show you don’t care about them as a person, and will plant the seed of the idea that they need to leave in order to grow and develop their interests.
  9. Develop their CVs. Offer as many opportunities for growth as you can within the school. If there isn’t an opportunity going, you could offer temporary secondments to middle or senior leaderships roles, or you could try arrange a few placements in other schools where they shadow someone in a role they aspire to. Actively develop opportunities for teachers to work on their CVs, and develop a reputation as a school where the enthusiastic teachers can come and grow.
  10. Give credit. Never miss any opportunity to praise staff at your school and give them credit for the success of the school. Praise them to parents, in newsletters, to the media and to students. Praise individuals quietly behind their backs, and praise them to their faces.

What other examples can you give where leaders have created an enthusiastic school?

2012: time to stop this poverty of aspiration known as ‘ability’ labelling.

Have you ever taken an IQ test? My Dad loves to complain that IQ tests only measure how good you are at taking IQ tests, (albeit while noting he was once a member of Mensa), and the more I’ve been reading about learning, psychology and neuroscience the more I find I absolutely have to agree with him.

It’s always been fairly nonsensical when you consider how this fabled human quality of ‘natural ability’ was so inextricably and inversely linked to poverty, parenting and early childhood experience. I wonder how many of the people who graduated from the ever-expanding Open University last year were written off as ‘not very bright’ at school? My own mother left school at 15 without a maths qualification and with an enormous chip on her shoulder. By the time she was 55 she had a masters degree in literature and a great deal more pride. She not only had to study, she had to build her own confidence and teach herself study skills, and I have to say I admire her greatly for it.

Perhaps, in her school days, she failed her 11+. Perhaps she was put in low ability sets. Perhaps she was given cloze-exercises and wordsearches when her peers in other sets and schools were getting challenged by extended problems. Maybe nobody ever took the time to go back and shore up a few shaky foundations of her understanding, nobody took the time to give her the will, the confidence, and the discipline to learn nor the tools with which to improve. I suspect instead they simply said ‘she’s not very able’ and were happy for her to not understand much of what was being taught, gain Ds and Es and then shunt her off to some low-expectation low-demand qualifications to suit her ‘talent’ level.

Of course there has been a change in focus in these days. Now having failed her 11+ she would have been allocated a target grade that is appropriate for her ability while showing a suitable level of progress. Teachers may even tell her they have set an aspirational target of a C. High aspirations indeed(!), and then of course she would be advised to take some of her favourite subjects, possibly less academically demanding ones, so that she won’t lose her self-confidence.

Oh dear. Can 2012 be the year we stop this nonsense? Time to go back to first principles.

Every student has some history of attainment and some holes in understanding. However, just as importantly, each of them bring with them varying levels of motivation across subjects. The process of learning itself requires a number of skills, and different students will be strong in some and less-so in others.

Attainment, and capacity to learn. The two planks of student education and development. And yet for some reason lots of teachers pay far too much attention to the former, and concentrate overly much on the narrow ‘confidence’ element in the latter.

It is our role as teachers to develop a student’s capacity to learn as much as it is to present the subject material. If a student finds something hard and unappealing it is our job to develop their mental capacity to learn it effectively and find some hook of interest and experience on which to hang it – not to find them easier work or funnel them in to ‘alternative provision’.

If a student doesn’t initially warm to a subject, or has trouble accessing it, then they are not ‘less able’, they have simply not yet developed the capacity to learn it so effectively, nor have they yet attained the relevant previous skills and knowledge. Children develop at different rates, but that does not imply ‘ability’. If a student isn’t accessing material in a lesson then perhaps the assessment of their understanding has failed – there may be earlier concepts that they haven’t grasped that are blocking their progress.

That said, if we give students the impression that it is their job to sit there passively and be ‘taught’ by teachers then we are doing both the students and the teachers a disservice. In developing their capacity to learn we must not only instil motivation but also the discipline and rigour of study. Some of the best things that we learn in life are the ones that are hard, verging on unpleasant at first, and only blossom into fascination at a later stage. If we trust both that the outcome of our efforts will be worthwhile, and that we have the ability to overcome the obstacles, then we can learn.

Poverty of aspiration is a terrible thing. Is is easy, as @oldandrewuk always says, to write off  “other people’s children” as simply less able, while staying up late with your own helping them with homework and buying in expensive private tutors so that they can fulfil their true potential.

I very much hope that any student who, in my career so far, has felt that I have written them off or ‘dumbed them down’ will, in 20 years time, track me down with their own Open University degree in hand and shove it in my face. I am sure I would deserve it, just as much as my own mum’s maths teachers most certainly did.

Agree/disagree? I’d love to hear your comments.