“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.

Stress: what is it?

Our bodies have evolved to react when in danger, whether that is physical danger (e.g. the threat of being eaten or attacked) or social (losing social status, uncertain situations, lack of control, meeting strangers or unfairness).

Of course these days things tend to be a little more complicated than being chased by a wild animal or trying to fight off a new dominant male in the pack, but sure enough the stress mechanism still comes in to play. It is entirely possible to get some control over these processes, but the first stage is to recognise and understand what is happening.

The body’s response to stress

The initial reaction to stress (‘Alarm’) is all about preparing the body to start running or fighting, and is triggered by the release of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol as directed by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that links the nervous systems and endocrine/hormone systems. The effects you notice are:

  • Acceleration of the heartbeat and breathing faster, to get more oxygen to the muscles,
  • Liberation of fat and glucose to provide energy for the muscles,
  • Pupil dilation and inhibition of peripheral vision so you concentrate on moving in one direction only,
  • Relaxation of bladder and various sphincters, to prevent the effort of holding in body waste and possibly to ‘offload’ weight,
  • Dilation of blood vessels in muscles, constriction of blood vessels everywhere else,
  • Magnification of spinal reflexes, ability to focus and immune system, and inhibition of various other energy-consuming processes and responses such as sexual arousal, digestion, attention to pain and higher-order thinking (e.g. creativity and metacognition).

If the cause of stress remains for some time then the body moves in to the ‘resistance’ phase where it attempts to adapt the response to suit the situation. However, if this goes on too long then the body moves in to the final ‘exhaustion’ phase where the imbalance of normal blood flow and excess production of certain hormones can exhaust the body’s resources, leading to long-term damage. This could manifest as ulcers, diabetes, digestive disorders, cardiovascular problems, depression, or other mental disorders.

So what’s the problem?

Stress is a fairly primitive response to problems, and in most situations that we encounter in life we would do better to regain control of ourselves. When we’re in the full grip of ‘fight-or-flight’ we aren’t using our full mental faculties, and can appear irritable, overly emotional, agitated and unhappy. We’re poor at remembering, poor at concentrating and we tend toward pessimism. The trouble is that, for many people, stress becomes a way of life. People become isolated socially, pick up bad-habits and addictions, become more prone to illness, lose sex-drive and develop poor sleeping habits.

This is all rather rather sad and ironic as our most effective routes out of stress are often other people’s empathy and listening, sleep, and our own high-order thinking skills such as metacognition. However in the absence of a decent understanding of stress we often smoke, drink, take drugs and develop emotional problems and thinking disorders.

So what’s the solution?

Fortunately we can learn and develop the skills that help overcome the majority of stressful situations.

  1. Name the emotion in order to tame it.
    Practise becoming aware of your different emotional states. Notice your physical stress responses and make a mental note that you are feeling stressed and anxious. Separate the feeling from yourself, e.g. “I feel sad right now” and not “I am sad”. This engages your left-brain to bring a bit of order and logic to the rather more right-brain oriented emotional responses, and activates the metacognitive powers of your higher-order brain areas to bring understanding instead of fear.
  2. Put it in to perspective.
    Remember all emotions are temporary and will pass. Spot what just caused the emotion and notice that your brain went into autopilot as a result. Pause whatever you are doing. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly and consciously relax your muscles. If you are able, move away from the situation and do something physical (brisk walking, jumping, stretches). Take a moment to notice as the physical symptoms gradually diminish: muscles relax, breathing and heart-rate slows, your thinking becomes calmer. By doing this your brain starts releasing chemicals that moderate the hormonal action of the stress response.
  3. Acknowledge and accept it.
    Don’t give yourself a hard time, your instincts just kicked in as a result of the combination of what just happened with your memories of previous events. Don’t worry that you’ve just been in conflict or an anxious-making situation. Both are very useful, and can be triggers for personal growth. You’ve just been in a situation where you can learn something useful about yourself, the world, and other people. Take a moment (you can do this a little later) to think through the clear logic of what happened, how you felt and why you felt it. If it was someone else who caused the stress, imagine what combination of their personal perception and memories triggered their action. All of these actions help you move the event from unconscious low-level memory to explicit higher-level memory, and fully integrate the event through all parts of the brain, emotional and logical. Failure to do this can lead to anxious memories and future stress.

When should you do this?

Use this all the time. Practise noticing your emotional and mental state, whether happy, sad, alert, tired, loving, angry or anxious. You can even practise this in retrospect by simply imagining a recent stressful situation and remembering your physical state. You’ll probably find that in doing so you re-live some of the stress and can practise taming it.

How can you help someone else?

This is easier with children, but can also work with adults. Be explicit in naming what they are feeling, e.g.”Oh dear, poor you, I can see you’re feeling really angry at the moment, your brain must be in full stress mode which can’t be very nice”. Use your whole body to show empathy and sympathy for their situation. Speak more slowly, take a breath and exhale noticeably. Encourage them to pause and take a breath. If you can do, take them away from the stress situation and encourage them to walk around. You could sit down and throw a ball backward and forward as you start to discuss the situation, give them a stress toy or a cushion to squeeze. Remind them gently (if appropriate) that it was just an emotion when their brain went into autopilot.

As you see them start to relax, say it out loud – reassure them that they are relaxing and that the situation is over. Now you can start  asking questions and listen openly to responses. You might start with “How are you feeling now?” to ground them back in their more relaxed state.


  1. Stress is activated in physically and socially threatening situations
  2. Your muscles tense, your breathing quickens and your logical ability and emotional control diminish.
  3. Begin to conquer stress by noticing the stress response in your brain, and mentally name it: “I am feeling stressed/anxious at this moment”
  4. Put it in perspective by remembering that it is just a temporary emotion. “I can relax myself and this emotion will pass soon”. Pause, take a slow breath, relax your muscles,
  5. Acknowledge the stressful situation. Don’t give yourself a hard time, take a moment to think through the situation from all angles and perspectives.
  6. Practise noticing emotions in all parts of your life. Help other people through stress by verbalising what they are thinking, mirroring their emotions and guiding them to relax.

I will be writing some more blogs about how school leaders, teachers, students and parents can apply these principles, and about how some simple habits can increase your general positivity and reduce overall stress.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this blog, as always!


The tyranny of targets and approved teaching methods

I was watching a video of systems thinker John Seddon lambasting an obsession with targets recently. He points out that if you want to improve any system it’s worth thinking about three elements:

  • Purpose. What effect should the system have, what are its intended outcomes?
  • Measurement. How do we know if the system is fulfilling its purpose?
  • Method. What happens in the system to keep it on track?

Any thinking needs to start with the purpose or else you get a whole raft of unintended consequences. Education is no exception, and I’ve been picking out examples that I have personally encountered.

When the primary focus is on measurement (exams/league tables) you simply create a de facto purpose of “make the measurements look better”. Some of the methods to do this may suit the original purpose (attempts to improve quality of teaching and learning), but some of them will work directly against it (endless revision classes, insufficiently taxing exams, over-coaching, or even cheating).

Just as damaging is a focus on method. For example “all must write lesson objectives, all lessons will be three part, and all students must know their levels”. This creates a de facto measurement “is the teacher using an approved method?” and “can the student recite their levels”, which in turn creates a purpose of “create teachers who use a fixed teaching method, and students who can recite levels”.

Of course leaders/managers/headteachers may have in the back of their mind that as well as delivering approved methods and improved accountability measures they would also rather like to ensure kids receive a ‘good education’, but if this is the lower priority then the system will reflect it.

In the 50s and 60s in Japan they went through a revolution in quality that enabled them to  overtake the industrial domination of the USA in few decades. Many managers there were trained by W E Deming, who famously advised

“Eliminate numerical quotas, including Management by Objectives.”

So how do we change our lessons and our schools to reflect this? After a short brainstorm I’ve thought of a few ideas, but I suspect you could suggest many more.

  • Remember that improving accountability targets is not an objective in itself: it will be one tell-tale sign of whether your students and teachers are buying in to the core purpose of learning.
  • Plan every lesson primarily to achieve learning. Think about the learning that needs to take place before you think about the structure and content of the lesson.
  • Assess deep learning. Use the SOLO taxonomy. Use the full range of tools from rote memorisation through to open-ended problem solving.
  • Reject imposed lesson structures, let teachers grow their strengths, challenge students in different ways.
  • Never judge a student, a teacher, a lesson or a school by their outcomes alone. You need a rich mix of observations, discussions, and self-evaluations  as well as outcomes.
  • Focus less on recording and processing symptoms of poor learning (e.g. behaviour problems and absences) and put more energy in to creating better learning. You can pick up the relevant information from these measures without having to obsessively record them 10 times a day.

Let me be clear. I absolutely do not suggest that we don’t need to measure things, take exams or train teachers in specific methods. However, we do need to avoid these methods becoming compulsory and these measures and exams becomes ends in themselves. There needs to be a relentless focus on student learning and development – everything else is, and should remain, subsidiary. When that is improved, we will know it by seeing the measures improve.

To conclude, a few more pieces of classic W E Deming advice, as taken from the Cambridge University Press summary of his 14 points.

  • Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.
  • Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  • Eliminate work standards on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
  • Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
  • Remove barriers that rob the hourly paid worker of his right to pride in workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
  • Remove barriers that rob people in management and engineering of their right to pride in workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and management by objective.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

That’s not fair! The psychology of our natural sense of justice.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

5. Fairness

In 2007 Tabibna and Lieberman did an interesting experiment where people were told that there was a certain quantity of money available and that it would be split between them and one other person. They measured the reward-mechanism response in their brains as they told them this, and found that if offered $0.50 out of $1.00 total then the subjects experienced a greater reward response than if they were offered $10.00 out of $50.00. The perceived unfairness of the latter situation was greater, even though, objectively, they were getting a better deal.

Fairness, it seems, is an inbuilt mechanism in the brain, and can affect our sense of relatedness and status.

“People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Similar parts of the brain are activated when people perceive unfairness as when they are physically disgusted by something, driving people to a state of either anger or fear – the classic fight or flight response.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Having a consistent approach to rules, both rewards and punishment, can work in a teacher’s favour. It ensures students sense they too will be treated fairly, thus reducing anxiousness. It increases certainty and helps students recover relatedness even after they have been disciplined. Stressed and inexperienced teachers often attempt to mix ‘tactically ignoring’ problems with sudden harsh punishments when their patience breaks. This immediately aggravates the sense of fairness in every member of the class, turning them against the teacher. Attempting to do any real teaching when the class is in this state is futile – their fight-or-flight response is activated and completely dampens the relevant mechanisms relevant for learning.

School Leadership

In the general stress of a teacher’s job, the very last thing that they need is to feel that they are being treated unfairly themselves. A lack of transparency in pay, rewards, and promotions are common causes of perceived unfairness, and even more so when new management are parachuted in and suddenly decide that one or two members of staff need to be removed. Even if it is for the best intentions, a decision to treat some people by different rules will destroy the collegiate atmosphere for the rest. If in doubt, senior leadership should ensure that they come off no better, and ideally ever so slightly worse than their colleagues when a change in rules is announced.

Education Policy

Politics is rife with accusations of unfairness. In times of change when anxiety is generally higher then people will be acutely aware of any lack of justice. Common problems are when politicians push their ‘pet’ projects or make announcements without any genuine transparency. Of course politicians, like many other, suffer unfairness at the hands of the media, but it is vital that they avoid making the same mistake.

In times of hardship it is worth demonstrating how politicians and policy-makers are being affected, and again it is worth ensuring that the perception is that “we’re all in this together, but we value you so much that we’ll take a slightly bigger hit ourselves”. A notable place for this would have been where the UK government was negotiating pension decreases. I suspect that the whole thing would have been accepted much more readily by unions if MPs had made a show of how they were cutting their own pensions by ever so slightly more than their proposals for the rest of the country.


  • We make make assessments of fairness based on how we are treated compared to everyone else – it plays to our natural sense of empathy.
  • Unfairness causes stress and anxiety and induces anger, fear and hopelessness.
  • Lack of consistency is unfairness, and lack of transparency can lead to perceived unfairness.
  • If you have to inflict suffering on people you lead then you should be seen to be suffering at least as much yourself, in order to maintain the sense of justice.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman M. D. (2007). Fairness and Cooperation Are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101.

My Christmas Wish

In September 2005, as my family was reeling from the rapid deterioration of my mother’s health from lung cancer, I started feeling very ill myself. I turned yellow with severe jaundice. At an emergency GP appointment I was told me to take a cab to hospital immediately and the doctor rang ahead to get them ready to admit me. Something was horribly wrong with my liver.

I made an appointment to see one of the specialists at the amazing Kings College Hospital Liver Unit who soon diagnosed me with a rare disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a randomly occurring condition without any known cause. My health continued to deteriorate, and I was in and out of hospital with infections. On one particularly awful evening as I lay alone in a hospital bed I was called by my brother to tell me that my mum had passed away with the rest of the family around her. That was one of my all-time lows.

I was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant, and in the meantime scheduled for a operation to put in a temporary measure to try and help my ailing liver. Fortunately this helped me make a temporary recovery, be removed from the transplant list, and I even managed to get back to work in early 2006.

I remained gaunt, tired, slightly jaundiced and had difficulty retaining concentration. I maintained this for two years before being rushed in to A&E in August 2008 for chronic pain, and started to deteriorate again. I went back on the liver transplant waiting list, and had to go on sick leave. Those months were a nightmare of hospital visits and sleepless nights, jumping every time the phone went in case it was ‘the call’ to come in and have the operation. The chance of me getting further complications and infections increased every day.

After a false alarm in early 2009, I finally got the call on the 4th of February. Somewhere in Midlands a family in the middle of despair and grief at the loss of their sister/mother made the breathtakingly generous decision to allow her organs to be used for donation, and I was lucky enough to receive her liver.

My life was saved. After just over two weeks in hospital I was allowed home. After only a few more weeks I was popping in to my school to help out. By April I was back in teaching, by May I managed to get back in to my big hobby of latin-american dance, and I even managed to meet my partner who I had a civil partnership with in 2010.

At the wedding we asked all of our guests to give generously to the Kings College Hospital charity in lieu of gifts, and, most importantly, sign up to the organ donation register and tell their loved ones to do the same.

Every one person who dies (and whose family agree to donate their organs) can save as many as ten other lives, and bring joy and relief to families. All it takes is for you and your friends and relations to sign up to the register, and tell everyone you know that if the worst should happen, they must give their consent.

My wish this Christmas is that you agree to give this most precious of gifts. Sign up today, and save lives.

Merry Christmas!