Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

 

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

 

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

 

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

 

Take the following examples:

 

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 

He wore a bright red coat.

 

Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

 

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

 

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.

 

Sequencing

Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

 

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speech, syntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 

Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

 

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

 

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

 

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

 

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 

Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

 

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

 

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

 

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 

To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James Murphy, Eric Kalenze and Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

 

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

 

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Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.

 

On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.

 

In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.

 

Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.

 

It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.

 

I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.

 

I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.

 

Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?

 

But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?

 

I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.

 

 

 

20 Months’ Reading Progress in 10 Months

This week, we carried out our first set of nationally standardised assessments. These show the progress our pupils have made throughout the year in reading, English and Maths.

 

Pupils are delighted with their results. The average Michaela pupil made 20 months’ reading progress in 10 months. Over half our year 7 pupils now have a reading age of 14 or above, and our SEN pupils have made rapid progress, catching up quickly with their peers.

 

Of course, there are many factors that have contributed to these outcomes, and we are very much aware that we still have a long way to go, and that we must maintain this as the school grows. However, a few people have been asking us how we achieved these results, and whilst I don’t think there is one formula to rule them all on this one, here are a few ideas that have played a part in making this happen.

 

  1. How to get them reading: which diagnostic assessments are useful? How should pupils be grouped? Which intervention programmes work best? What are the key focus areas in reading instruction? This blog provides a broad overview of our approach to reading at Michaela.

 

  1. How to motivate reluctant readers: in this post, I argue that habits, a feeling of success and increased challenge are important levers to pull when trying to motivate reluctant readers.

 

  1. How to read texts in lessons: At Michaela, pupils read thousands of words every day, in subjects across the curriculum. How could teachers go about this? What should reading look like in a lesson in any subject? This blog gives some examples of what this might look like.

 

  1. How to increase a pupil’s vocabulary: Vocabulary acquisition and extension is complex and boggling at times. In this post, I summarise some approaches we read about in Beck et al.’s excellent book, and a few other things we do to build vocabulary.

 

  1. One Hundred Classics for Every Child: The simplest way to improve pupils’ reading is to get them to read loads. Here’s how we will give every child a minimum of 100 classics over five years.

 

 

I should add that nothing here is revolutionary or new. Everything you will read about in the above posts has been pinched from stuff we’ve read, seen or heard about over the last few years.

 

Like I say, we aren’t experts, nor do we think that these are necessarily the best ways to get results. I’d welcome others’ tips and views on all of this, so please feel free to add what you do in the comments below.

 

Finally, whilst this is all very encouraging, I’m mindful of Kipling’s profound words:

 

            If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

            And treat those two imposters just the same

 

Results most certainly are not everything, and I wouldn’t want us to pin all our hopes on them or grow complacent. It’s important to see this triumph as a bit of an imposter, and not to let it distract us from doing our best by the kids every single day. That is, after all, what we’re all in this for!

 

Knowledge is Power

When I began blogging in 2013, the argument that knowledge should be at the heart of the curriculum was readily rejected. The most common counter-argument was that rote learning of lists of facts was a waste of time as it would not lead to ‘deep learning’ (whatever that means) or understanding. Since that time, the debate seems to have shifted somewhat. Fewer people now argue that knowledge is irrelevant. Instead, critics argue that knowledge is just the beginning, or that we should somehow teach knowledge and skills simultaneously, or that a distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy (yawn).

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of knowledge. It’s one of the reasons I joined Michaela– where our motto is ‘Knowledge is Power’. Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge- rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school. Over the past year, I have come to see the impact that knowledge can have on a child’s ability to make interesting connections and links, and to analyse and evaluate ideas. At Michaela, all our children are expected to learn lists of facts by rote. This is still very unusual and there are many out there who criticise us for it.

But time and time again, I have seen the value of learning such lists of facts. Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, this rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with ‘Poseidon’- one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs.

On this particular occasion, we were preparing to study Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was.

In this instance, a lack of relevant knowledge rendered me incapable of grasping an accurate understanding of the facts. I consider myself to be a relatively good ‘critical thinker’ (although I’m sure many readers may disagree!), but my ability to think critically was useless in this instance because of the gaps in my knowledge. My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Corridors

You stand behind your chair and hoist your brand new Reebok bag up on to your shoulders. You check to see if your shirt is tucked in, but the weight of the rucksack and your general awkwardness make any on-the-go wardrobe adjustments impractical and inelegant. Just tap your fingers on the table instead, you think. That’ll make you look cool and nonchalant. A broken light buzzes and flickers overhead. A faded clock-face screams that break time is nearly here. A rumble of chairs above tells you that others are packing away now, too. Mrs Archer stands stern and firm at the front of the room. Her unshakeable glare and an almost imperceptible eyebrow shift suggest that you should stop the table drumming this instant if you wish to avoid a verbal lashing. Fold your arms and look somewhere else, you idiot! Once again, you berate yourself for doing the wrong thing.

 

All is still and silent. The clock hands continue their lonesome strides across the barren seconds and minutes. Time is not slipping by unnoticed today, like it does usually.

 

A click, and the stillness is shaken. The bell wails and the room shudders and trembles as the hoards charge towards the doorway. Elbows, kneecaps, the stamp of eager feet: hundreds of bodies swamp the maze of corridors that lead towards the canteen. It’s rush hour for teenagers: chaotic, violent, and out of control. Mr Shetland arrives at his duty post and observes the ensuing mayhem. He munches on an apple and feebly points his fingers and utters ineffective words. Nothing changes. The madness heightens.

 

There are only fifteen minutes of freedom available, and you have many tasks to complete in that time. Your course to the lunch hall to meet Tina and Hanna is a gravelly road indeed. Try not to tumble down two flights of stairs; sprint across the yard without getting caught by a teacher or laughed at by an older kid; push through the hundreds of pairs of year 11 legs to get to the front of the snack queue. And the corridors: the endless corridors. You have to pick up your lab coat for science next lesson, and it’s in your locker. Your locker is on the Geography corridor at the other end of the school. The thought of going there fills you with dread. Maybe I could say I left it at home? Your mind is awash with potential excuses as you desperately try to think of a way to avoid going to fetch it. Nah, Miss O’Neill will kill me if I forget it. You remember last time: the shrillness of her voice, and the snotty note she wrote to your mum in your planner. Shrugging off the memory and admitting defeat, you make your way over there.

 

Locker number 101. You are too young to notice the irony. It’s about the size of your Reebok bag, contains your PE kit, lab coat and German dictionary, and is guarded by a huge silver padlock that your dad used to use for the garage. It’s on the bottom row, right in the middle. The stampede is still flowing through the Geography floor. You pick a moment and dive towards the ground, gripping a tiny key in your fingers. You are swift: the door swings open within seconds. Hand on lab coat, you are ready to stand again and make your escape, when suddenly, the human tidal wave crashes and consumes you, and your forehead makes its acquaintance with the sticky, gum-covered linoleum floor. Boot to the face. Trainer to the rib. You see nothing but school shoes and frayed trouser hems. A year 10 boy trips and slumps on top of you, his Lynx-soaked body weighing heavily on your bird-like frame. The air fills with uproarious laughter and shrieks of “OHHHHHH! She fell over! GUTTED!” The second wave is one of shame and embarrassment; you’re on the floor… again. And the clock, which was previously so sombre, so forgiving and so slow, has raced on and now your science lesson starts in less than three minutes. Can’t be late. Stand up; brush the dust off your bum and the stupefied look of shock off your face. Stuff your lab coat into your bag. Run as quickly as you can.

 

***

 

You awake from the daydream and take in more familiar, calm surroundings. The kids are strolling past you in single file, all smiling and wishing you a good morning. No pushing. No shoving. No jibes. No jostles. Some people hear of this and say you are ‘extreme’, that ‘no excuses’ are harmful, and that walking in silence in the corridor is too ‘militant’. And you remember the corridors and the fear and the dread and the loathing and the horror, and the words of the naysayers do nothing to perturb you or shake your faith in the environment you have helped to build.

 

The pupils snake gently into their classrooms and the doors close. Empty corridors. Mission accomplished.

How to Have Difficult Conversations

Like all professions, education is full of terrible leaders. There are lots of good ones out there, but a cursory glance at the odd teacher blog, or a tiptoe into the average staff room, would tell you that there are a lot of teachers who don’t really rate the people who lead them.

 

In the past, I have written about what I termed the ‘Bowling Ball’ approach to leadership. This particular leadership style is embodied by those leaders who take no responsibility for the failings of the school, but instead pass blame down the ranks towards the teachers, bashing them to smithereens on the way. This is not good for lots of reasons. Staff feel disempowered and less invested in the school; they lose confidence and are less likely to want to work hard; they sometimes become negative and complain. People need to feel like the people who lead them have got their backs. A metaphorical bowling ball to the face doesn’t really achieve that, funnily enough.

 

Of course, the nature of school life is such that, unfortunately, awkward conversations are unavoidable and inevitable. Even in the best schools with the best leaders, there will be times when difficult situations arise and need to be dealt with. Every time someone gets observation feedback, every time a conversation about progress has to happen, and every time something big has to change: every one of these instances, as well as countless others, have the potential to become awkward or difficult for staff.

 

This doesn’t mean we have to be arseholes about it. In fact, I reckon that if you get these conversations right, they can actually be a really positive thing and can help to build- rather than destroy- professional relationships and trust.

 

I see myself as somewhat of a veteran of the awkward conversation, having been on the receiving end of many, and more recently, leading some. Although I am fully aware of my lack of experience and expertise in this respect, I have picked up a few nuggets of wisdom that have helped me, and that I thought I would share here.

 

Pre-emption: Have Their Back.

 

God, I cannot emphasise this enough. The culture of the school must be such that teachers feel that middle and senior leaders care about their welfare and want to help them do a great job. It’s harder to achieve this than you might think, and I believe that, on the whole, it comes down to the individual interactions people have in the organisation, and how honest and open everyone is. If the Head is quite happy to listen to people and receive feedback, etc., and if senior and middle leaders follow suit, and do it with a smile, there will be more trust floating about the place, and people will be more likely to interpret any potentially ‘difficult’ situations more generously. For this to happen, you need a school lead by people who care about building trust. If you don’t have that, it will be harder to cultivate such a culture.

 

Having the Conversation.

 

Okay, so let’s imagine that your school has a lovely warm culture where everyone is pretty happy on the whole (hard, but not impossible to achieve). Then something happens that means a middle or senior leader has to have an awkward conversation with a member of staff. Here are my thoughts on how to go about having such a conversation without destroying trust and disempowering the poor person you are having it with.

 

  1. Expectation vs. Reality

 

You must go in to these conversations with a very, very clear understanding of what went wrong. What was the expectation, and what actually happened? For example, the expectation might be that the teacher marks their books twice a half term, and the reality is that they haven’t marked them for a whole term. Once you have established this gap in your mind, you must share it with the person involved. Gently help them to see this gap in expectation. Never refer to your own feelings about the situation: as when managing kids’ behaviour, try to separate the person from the action as much as possible. It should never be about blame or fault. You don’t want to say anything that might make the person feel guilty or like they have let you or the kids down. That will do nothing but destroy their self-esteem, and you are unlikely to get the result that you want that way.

 

Instead, be warm; couch the conversation in the language of support and working together. Refer to your own experiences and show that you are also a human and have fallen behind work in the past. Empathise. Appreciate that it may not be that easy to mark 200 books a fortnight when you are snowed under with planning, have 3 kids and a partner, are moving house and have God knows what else to think about. Don’t judge.

 

But clarity is still important. Remember their strengths, and think of the current issue as something to work on to make that person even better than they already are. They’ve failed to meet an expectation: that’s it. As their line manager, it is your job to support them to meet it next time.

 

  1. The Responsibility Spectrum

 

I don’t think many situations are ever the sole responsibility of one individual. As a leader, you must think carefully about where the responsibility lies, and use the incident as an opportunity to learn something new about managing people. What could you have done differently? Could you have supported them more? Could you have clarified or managed expectations differently? Are you asking or expecting too much of them?

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 14.03.46

I tend to think about this as a spectrum. At one end, the responsibility belongs 100% to the line manager or leader; at the other, it stays 100% with the member of staff involved. Think carefully about where the incident sits on that spectrum and explain that to them in the meeting. Perhaps you could have spoken to them about marking sooner to avoid it becoming an issue; perhaps you could have clarified the expectations surrounding marking; perhaps the marking policy is too onerous and needs to be readdressed. Have the humility to see that, on some level, you could have done something to reduce the severity of the issue.

 

Help your colleague see this. Be honest and open about what you could have done differently, and give them the opportunity to do the same. If they are particularly tricky customer and don’t reciprocate, clarify what you think they could have done differently.

 

  1. Have their back

 

The last part of the conversation needs to be about action and next steps. Make the next steps crystal clear, and outline exactly what you will do to improve the situation, and what you expect them to do. Again, this must be underpinned by a message of support and assistance, or they will feel like they are being told what to do and may not buy into it. Ask for their input: “Is there anything else I could do differently/better? I want to get better at x so that I can be more useful to you.” “Do you agree with what we’ve discussed today? I’m open to pushback.”… etc.

 

Overall, remember that it isn’t about egos or power or winning. Keep the big end goal in sight: that you all want the school to be brilliant so that you can do the best by the kids. You simply won’t reach that goal if it’s all about you, or if they don’t see you as someone who wants to work with them to improve things.

 

See the episode as a learning opportunity and a chance to invest in your colleague. There is always more we can do to build trust with others. Paradoxically, difficult conversations (done well) are one of the best opportunities we have for improving the relationships within an organisation.

 

Why being a SENCO is awesome

Whenever I tell people I’m a SENCO, or explain the nature of my job to non-teachers, I pretty much always get the same response.

 

“Crikey, I couldn’t do that job!”

“You must be mad!”

“That must be such hard work!”

“Why would you take that on?”

“Sounds like a complete nightmare!”

 

When I told one of my friends that I was applying for the position of Director of Inclusion at Michaela, they said: “I’m pretty sure nobody else would want that job, so you can guarantee you’ll get it.”

 

I’m really not sure why people react in these ways when I tell them what I do. People recoil in horror; they look at me as if I’m completely mad; sometimes, they even have the audacity to give me patronising pat on the shoulder, implying on some level that I’m a haggard soldier about to leave for yet another war-torn country against my will.

 

I hear loads of people say how much they want to be a Head of Department, a Head of Teaching and Learning, or a Head of year, or how they aspire to be a Head teacher some day, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has said that they want to be a SENCO in the future.

 

This makes me really sad. It makes me sad not just because we need great people to do this job, but because it is an incredible role. Here are a few reasons why I think so:

 

  1. Clear focus

 

Too many people overcomplicate the role of SENCO, which can make it seem less appealing to prospective applicants. For me, my role is very simple.

 

My aim, first and foremost, is to make myself redundant.

 

To do that, there are two really important things I need to keep in the centre of my mind at all times: first, make sure every child can read. Second, do whatever needs to be done outside of lesson time to make sure kids learn when they are in lessons.

 

I’m so clear about what I want to achieve as a SENCO that I don’t fuss about with things that get in the way. So I avoid pointless meetings, unnecessary paperwork and attending timewasting conferences as much as possible. Instead, I teach, organise interventions, spend lots of time with the pupils, and make sure teachers and support staff have everything they need to teach their kids really, really well.

 

 

 

  1. Improves your teaching

 

In my first year of teaching, I was thrust into a bit of a nightmare situation at a bit of a scary school. One of the things that I really did love, however, was the fact that I had been given pretty much all bottom sets in my first year. Again, I received looks of pity and pledges of support, and although I was initially horrified at the prospect, I quickly grew to see it as a gift. Those classes- 10.6, 9.4, 11.5 and 11.6- crikey, they were tough. But I was a much better trainee and teacher for it.

 

Teaching bottom sets makes you a better teacher because you have to think really carefully about how to get weak kids to grasp tricky concepts. How can you get a group of illiterate boys to understand (and possibly enjoy) Romeo and Juliet? It forced me to chunk down content into minute parts, and to think deeply about exactly what I wanted them to master and how I could help them get there. It forced me to think about learning in a completely different way, and it transformed my approach, understanding and beliefs about teaching forever.

 

  1. Long term, strategic thinking

 

Being a SENCO is more than attending annual review meetings and drinking cups of coffee. It’s an opportunity to shape the direction and focus of the school. As a SENCO, you are thinking constantly about what’s best for those who need the most support, and with a proactive attitude and a bit of gusto, you can fly the flag for SEN when senior team are cooking up the latest school-wide strategy. It is an excellent opportunity to have a huge impact on what is often (sadly) a big chunk of the student body. As a SENCO, you can introduce your own school-wide initiatives and strategies that support these kids. It’s an incredible opportunity to change and improve things.

 

  1. Strong relationships

 

At Michaela, I only teach the bottom two sets, and am the tutor for the weakest kids. This means that I know those kids really, really well. I teach them all of them for six hours a week. I see some of them another 3 and a half hours on top of that (for intervention and/or reading club). Our amazing team of Teaching Fellows run other interventions with them and report back to me on progress (quantitative and qualitative) every week. I observe them in lessons at least twice a week. I speak to several parents often. I know those kids really well. It’s a great pleasure and I’m excited to get to know them even better over the next five or so years.

 

  1. Transformation

 

If you have high expectations of SEN kids, the sky is the limit. Tell them they can do it, tell them you love helping them do it, and give them the right tools, and you will transform their lives. As I said at the beginning of the post, nobody needs education more than the kids with the biggest mountain to climb. When they do reach the peak, the view is more incredible than you- or they- could have ever imagined.