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Three Earrings in a Sandwich Bag (or what 25 years of teaching has taught me so far) by Abi Oldfield
It dawned on me recently, in a rare quiet moment, that I will be 50 in 2021 and will have spent exactly half my life teaching since graduating in 1996. 25 years ago I was still contemplating the possibility of becoming a windswept and interesting painter (of the Lucian Freud rather than Dulux kind) and as an attempt to try and cover both bases I took on the role of Head of Art in a middle school on the Isle of Wight. Since that time I have taught children, with varying success it has to be said, from nursery to Year 8, from North Cornwall to SE London, have experienced being a long and short term supply teacher (which should be introduced as a form of national service), class teacher, SENCo, leader and currently interim principal. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a single decision, even the choices I made which weren’t necessarily the right ones at the time, as every school I have worked in, every child I have taught and every person I have worked with has taught me something about teaching, learning, leadership and life and for that I am eternally grateful. As this is my first ever blog, rather than a long and probably fairly dull autobiography, I have condensed my learning into three lessons.
Like Buddy the Elf, “Smiling’s my favourite”. I have learned that the power of a smile cannot be underestimated, whether given or received. As a terrified NQT trembling in front of a class of thirty Year 8 students, most of whom were taller than me and looked about my age, I was advised sternly by my mentor not to smile until Christmas (as the cliché goes), not to be friendly but to assert my authority by memorising the school behaviour policy and recite it repeatedly between instructions. Kathy P (a Year 8 pupil that could sense an NQT’s fear at 100 metres), saw through my strategy within seconds, entered the art room with a truculent flourish: threw her bag on the floor and her feet on the front desk as she contemplated her new victim with a well-rehearsed smirk . It wasn’t a great lesson and neither were the ones that followed.
It was only when I changed strategy, a few long, painful weeks later, by observing another teacher at the school who had the children hanging on his every word, and laughing at his every joke, did the penny drop for me. As soon as I attempted to get to know the children in my classes and enabled them to get to know me, did things start to change. Welcoming them at the door (with a smile as opposed to a nervous, slightly unhinged glare), asking about their day, their weekend, introducing an art club, volunteering for school journeys, attending school discos etc – these minutes and hours were worth their weight in gold and enabled everyone involved to enjoy rather than endure art lessons during my time at Lake Middle School, Sandown. As Rita Pierson wisely preaches in her TED talk from 2013, “You know, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
Smiling is not only reserved for children of course, as Ginnott’s quote above states, it is our “daily mood that makes the weather”. Indeed, it has recently been confirmed by psychologists working at the University of Tennessee that, “facial expressions have a small impact on feelings. For example, smiling makes people feel happier, scowling makes them feel angrier, and frowning makes them feel sadder.”
Schools are vibrant, exciting places to work, but can also be challenging. Over the past 25 years I have worked with colleagues that can light up a room (and a classroom) and lift a mood within seconds of entering, along with a few that can drain energy like a vortex with an over-active eye roll or a mask of martyrdom. I have learned through experience that it is important to continually strive to be the former, no matter how many coffee cups you have left on the roof of your car on the way to work, or those challenging early morning conversations/arguments with your teenage children about lockdown rules = no ‘gatherings’ (even in the shed), that the smile is there as soon as you step into the school building. Anything else will make the day longer, harder and uncomfortable for you and anyone in your socially distanced vicinity, so everybody loses.
As a teacher, we are taught how to talk to children, to explain ideas, to engage and inspire minds, to ask interesting and open questions to deepen learning, to develop children’s oracy skills and vocabulary (and our own) by modelling our articulacy for at least six hours a day, often longer. As a leader we learn how to ‘get people on board’, to mentor and coach, to ask questions and answer them with clarity and purpose (hopefully), to lead meetings and assemblies, hold people to account and acknowledge success as well as challenge underperformance, be aware of our body language and modify it to ensure our inner thoughts do not betray our words, or use it to make our words have more impact. However, I have learned that none of this has any long or short term effect unless we have also learned to listen.
Being a good listener and modelling this most underrated skill to children, colleagues and parents enables us to be open to ideas, feedback, opinions and questions which in turn creates a culture of openness and continuous growth and development both professionally and personally. This has been particularly apparent and important during the past 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic. Policies, routines, logistics, behaviours have all had to be reviewed and revised to meet ever changing government guidance, and without the input, advice and ideas of colleagues in school, across the trust and the local authority, it would have been an impossible task and one that I would have abandoned for the safety and familiarity of my days as a Pizza Hut waitress
I have also learned that it is often the person in the meeting or child in the class that is not saying anything in discussions or brainstorms that will have the most insightful and interesting ideas and it is important to provide opportunities for these quieter voices to be heard. Interestingly, I was unaware that listening is a skill the most inspiring and insightful leaders have and took it for granted as a core leadership skill, until fairly recently when I worked with someone who listened politely, rather than intently, only to prepare a pre- conceived response rather than invite alternate ideas and opinions. The absence of this skill and their resulting closed-mindset was alien to me but taught me that good communication and leadership isn’t just what you say but how you listen before and after.
I have learned from experience that the best teachers are also the best learners and vice -versa. A love of learning cannot be faked (for long anyway) , and is utterly contagious for those in the vicinity whether adults or children. The teachers that have influenced me most have been those that have allowed themselves to teach with passion and without inhibition; whose excitement and passion exudes from their every word, smile and action. Watching my favourite English teacher (Mr Hazelgrove) at secondary school convulse with laughter while reading aloud from his book at the front of the class, did more to inspire a lifelong love of reading than any well-planned lesson, lecture or PowerPoint presentation I have seen since. Mrs Brown (my Year 6 teacher) defied all local authority rules and helped a large number of us pass our 11+ exam by teaching how to solve the mysteries of non-verbal reasoning tests, as well as how to hide our books in our desks and get our reading books out if an inspector walked in. She was passionate about learning and education and wanted to give every child in her class the best opportunities she could, knowing that most parents could not have afforded a tutor and the local secondary schools were a lottery in the late 1970s.
By modelling lifelong learning and the rewards and benefits of this by continually reading and sharing articles, blogs, books and podcasts about our craft, it enables us to grow, develop and hone our skills and knowledge as well as adapt and thrive during times of challenge, as the last few months have illustrated – managing the shift from face-to face to remote learning and forever refining skills we didn’t know we had 12 months ago.
25 years of teaching has so far taught me to expect the unexpected, to savour the moments of enlightenment, to listen and put time and effort into every relationship and ensure that everything we do and every decision we make is in the best interests of the children and families we serve, as nothing we do goes unnoticed. A colleague of mine recently received a gift of three (identical) earrings in a sandwich bag from a parent this Christmas as a thank you for all the support she had received. A bizarre, but touching gift of thanks that made me smile.