Automagical Organisation

I am not – as my friends can confirm – naturally organised. The reason I use some of these tips and tricks is to try to counteract my natural tendancy to be ten minutes late for everything, with the important stuff still at home on the diining room table. Originally, my blog was going to be a place for teaching-specific ways to stay organised, and I still mention some now and again. This is one of those times.

The Problems

Staying organised is about having what you need handy and getting jobs done on time. That’s it. Put like this, it sounds simple. If you’re wondering why anyone would write a blogpost explaining how they try to do it, then you probably don’t need it! I think the reason I sometimes struggle with deadlines is because I take on too much, or because ‘real life’ gets in the way. And with two kids, there’s a lot of unexpected events. The best way to make sure these issues don’t cause problems is to stop thinking about them. Let your extelligence do it for you instead.

Meeting Deadlines

Use a good calender, probably electronic. I like google calender, which combines with my preferred jobs list software (Astrid). I can add jobs using my phone or android device, or by email, and it reminds me when they’re getting close. Put work and home things on the calender – different colours might help – and make sure your partner/kids can see it too. This will probably involve some duplication, but obviously you’ll negotiate whose job it is to add items to a central place, whether that’s electronic (and therefore automagic) or paper (kitchen family planner or similar).

What will help get the jobs done on time? Knowing you’ve got them, to start with. I take minutes in meetings with my android, using Evernote. Any jobs for me are highlighted and the note is tagged as ‘next action’, which means it shows up on my front page. I also tag them as ‘work’ – more about tags in a moment.

I’m trying hard to make sure that I’ve got a headstart with regular jobs, by improving my organisation and staying longer at work before heading home. You may find setting a marking schedule, based around your PPA time, helps too. Effective peer marking, sensible policies and time savers like stickers or stamps with frequent corrections will all help. Depending on how you use AfL, you can probably tweak this to help with parents’ evening and reports preparation.

Summary: electronic calenders have lots of advantages, especially automagic reminders on mobile devices or to email.

Everything in the Right Place

Paper stuff is easy to sort out – check your timetable, just like we tell the kids. I try to put resources, marked work and so on (including lost pencil cases) on a shelf in my lab, one space marked out for each group. I’ve been using an electronic timetable (A+ on Android), so I can check it anywhere. If you produce a version on Excel, or the Google equivalent, you could include links to electronic markbooks, saved resources online or add reminders for extra materials or stacks of folders.

This brings us to electronic stuff, and in some ways it’s the most variable. There are lots of solutions, and which works for you will depend on how much you move around your school, how confident you are with computers and how obstinate your setting is with firewalls. Once more the aim is for everything to magically appear in the right place, already organised, so you don’t have to think about making it happen. Combining a common set of tags or labels with the web application IFTTT (IF This, Then That) is a huge help. I got the idea when I set up my Gmail so anything tagged as ‘work’ is forwarded to my work email.

Basically, once you’ve signed up for IFTTT you can set a load of conditional commands which link your various tools together. Following these recipes lets all kinds of things happen, effectively ‘behind the scenes’. Anything I tag as ‘work’ in GReader (I follow blogs etc by RSS) gets copied both to Evernote and my work email. I use ‘next action’ for setting myself jobs in the same way. Other similar rules let me save items that will be useful for my blog, or for home. I can also save items direct from each web browser I use, at home, work and mobile. All tweets that I favourite are archived too. As Evernote synchronizes automatically, I can get at these bookmarks, reminders and ideas wherever I am.

Files are a little harder. They can be attached to Evernote, but Dropbox and similar services (Google Drive, SkyDrive, SugarSync and so on) are easier. Find one that works for you, meshes easily with email and isn’t blocked at work. Add shortcuts to your desktop and make sure you have a lesson planning or resources folder, so everything you need is always to hand. You may even find that it’s easier to use your school VLE, uploading resources from home to use in lessons.

This kind of post makes me realise how badly the term ‘digital natives’ describes my students. Although they happily use social networking, it’s rare to hear them discuss any of these strategies to make their lives easier. Imagine if they could save everything they did, at school and home, to one searchable archive. Maybe we need to model this for them, as well as all the other skills we’d like them to learn.

What electronic shortcuts help you stay organised?

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Enemies of Promise

This will be a short post, partly because I’ve got lots of other things on the go and partly because I’m too angry about what appears to have happened. I say appears because I truly hope things aren’t as they seem, for the sake of our students.

In January – and at points since then – Michael Gove has labelled teachers and others who criticise his plans as ‘enemies of promise’. This has been used despite the criticisms often being valid and fair, based on data rather than ideology, and often from those who clearly know far more about educational theory and practice than him.

It appears, from lots of conversation on twitter and in the press, that this year’s GCSE results show some unexpected features. Overall, they seems to be a little lower than in previous years, and one exam in particular seems to have affected English results. Students who completed the foundation controlled assessment papers in January needed a lower score to achieve a C than those who sat the equivalent exam in June. (This issue is one we have seen many times with the AQA Science equivalent, ISAs.) The difference is significant and means that many students nationally have failed to reach a Grade C despite being on track for it up until this point.

There are two issues here, one of which is immediately significant. Students who have failed to achieve a grade C in English will find that their next steps – college or sixth form courses, apprenticeships and so on – are now barred to them. This matters now. Many of them will have been expecting to confirm their education and training places in the next week or so. There is little time to address this problem, if things are really as unfair as they seem.

And things are unfair. Most teachers, most people, accept that more challenging courses are worthwhile. Students may not be happy with the idea, but the difficulty of achieving particular grades is effectively an arbitary choice. Changing it from year to year, or between exam boards, obviously makes comparisons and target setting much harder, but it is not unfair. Changing the grade boundaries, between the students sitting an exam and being given their grade – for students doing one particular course – is clearly very different. The press today have suggested it is like moving the goalposts not just during a football game, but after a penalty has been taken and before the ball crosses the line.

A cynic would suggest that the government see moving goalposts after the numbers are known is a standard political tactic.

The other issue – and today of all days, this must be seen as secondary to the plight of affected students – is that schools are judged on their results. Gove and the Department for Education can take greater steps to control what happens in a school if GCSE results drop below certain levels. A significant indicator are the the number of 5A*-C grades, including English and Maths, and the EBacc. Both of these will drop in schools which have had students marked down from a C to a D grade in English due to these eleventh hour changes.

I’m trying very hard not to be cynical. I don’t teach English, except in the sense that many teachers share favourite books, correct spelling or help with grammar. But like many others, I struggle to see the fairness in changing how students are graded, after they have studied and sat the exam. Their lower results will now make it easier for unpopular, non-evidence-based and rushed changes to be pushed through, including forced academisation. This means it is even more important to find out who ordered these grade boundary alterations.

Who are the enemies of promise now, Mr Gove?

Electronic Markbook v2.1

I spent most of last year messing around with a simplified version of an electronic markbook. Of course, ideally it should be standardised and built in (not to mention linked to a lesson planner), but it’s not. Despite the fact that we use electronic registration in my setting, we need to keep track of attendance, behaviour and achievement in our lessons individually. This of course has both advantages and disadvantages.

My markbook last year was effectively attendance and a set of homework marks. I tried keeping track of test marks, but found it meant I was slow transferring them to the school system. My original plan, of using my Android, on the school WiFi, failed as we’re not trusted with access for our own devices; at the moment not even staff can BYOD.

My ideal system would be based out of GoogleDocs, usable from work and school, on my own device and through a school desktop. My concerns on this one are about storing student information in ‘the cloud’. Until I can answer those questions to my own satisfaction, I’m sticking with Excel. Yes, I know, boo hiss etc etc. There are obviously alternatives. But remember, I’ll mainly be using this on school computers, which limits my options.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is intended for my own use, in my own setting. I’m mainly making it public so that colleagues online can point out how to make it better, to be honest. 🙂 I consider it creative commons licenced, like everything else I do, so please feel free to adapt and use it – but if so please share it yourselves (especially with me).

I’ve spent time setting up the dates for my own school, so the term dates and INSET days will probably need tweaking. I’ve marked these with shaded columns rather than removing them. It’s set to automatically copy first names from the ‘Group’ sheet to all the others. At present this covers up to 35 students, with six names in there so I could test it. There are sheets for each halfterm of teaching, and one each for

  • group information
  • seating plan
  • homework record
  • notes for myself for reports

I’ll be importing data on targets (and in time, summative test scores) into the Group sheets. (If you want to do this, you’ll probably want to export from your school system as a CSV file.) My plan is to then colour code these so I can see at a glance those students at each end of the ability range, so I can target questions if needed. It should be fairly easy to use conditional formatting so that results can also be colour coded to show how they are doing compared to targets. The reports notes page is based on the feedback I give to students, including the quick reference stickers I use for common errors. I keep track of lesson content by adding brief info in the row beneath students’ attendance – this could be hotlinked to files if you wanted.

Download blank 2012-2013 as xlsx file.

Please ask any questions – and more importanly, make suggestions or give feedback – in the comments.

Reflecting Badly

It appears I’ve managed – completely accidentally, and certainly unintentionally – to offend people who I like and respect, personally and professionally. I apologise for that, as most of the time I only ever deliberately want to annoy Michael Gove and his minions. I hope that the offence has come from a lack of clarity in 140 character tweets, rather than my actual opinions. My aim in this post is to state my opinions clearly; I’d really appreciate comments telling me how successful or otherwise I’ve been with that.

The Background

Michael Gove has stated that academies (which now make up more than half of UK secondary schools) can now employ staff without QTS. The statement was released on the opening day of the Olympics, during the summer holidays. There have been many responses to this (a few examples in no particular order: Tom Bennett, Geoff Barton, glosswatch.com, @oldandrewUK), some more measured than others. [EDIT: And a great piece by Laura McInerney at LKMco, go read it now.)

My Beliefs

  1. I think anyone who teaches should have been effectively trained.
  2. I believe that we need some kind of ‘label’ to gather together the various routes that lead to a person having that minimum level of competence.
  3. I believe the different routes are not just convenient but necessary to prepare varied individuals for different roles in education.
  4. Finally, I believe that we need a better system to ensure teachers, for whatever age group and in whatever setting, can record and demonstrate their use of a range of CPD offerings throughout their career.

My Tweets

  • Gove’s idiocy is simply way to put non-teachers in academies. Qts is a shorthand for training, presumably FE has equivalent?
  • other routes eg b.ed, gtp, @teachfirst, to getting Qts. Agree it’s a flaw in system. Sadly think Gove not interested.

I had never before realised that teachers in some settings, although trained, don’t finish with the same QTS as I have. In my defence, in my setting it’s irrelevant. I now know a little better, for example that in a range of FE settings teachers will attain QTLS, awarded by the Institute for Learning. It seems that QTS and QTLS are almost but not quite interchangable, according to the government.

And so in response to a tweet about whether academies would publically state they would only employ staff with QTS, I typed:

My Opinions

Obviously there have been more on this topic, both my own and RTs from others. I thought what I had written, taken as a whole, showed that it is the training – in pedagogy, classroom management, etc etc – that I considered a prerequisite. Of course, PGCE courses aren’t perfect – but I don’t think saying they’re unneeded is the best way to improve them. Should I have used ‘untrained’ rather than ‘unqualified’? Because that was my intention. I don’t care how good somebody is in their subject, it doesn’t mean they have the teaching skills. My post a while back on Jamie’s Dream School makes that clear, I think.

I think allowing academies to hire staff who have not been trained (hopefully effectively) as teachers is a worrying development. There are clearly several ways to obtain this training. As I tweeted at the time, if Gove wants experts in their fields moved into classrooms quickly, why not expand programmes like TeachFirst and GTP routes? The new School Direct route, which includes a salaried option, involves student teachers working in a variety of schools and in many cases also being awarded a PGCE. Until that point, the graduates will be paid as ‘unqualified teachers’, but the point, like every other form of teacher training, is that there is a structured way to gain the skills needed in the classroom. Gove’s suggestion removes this safeguard.

It was not until it was made clear to me on twitter that those of us using QTS as a ‘shorthand’ label for staff who had gone through one of these routes were neglecting FE colleagues, who don’t have the opportunity to gain the same accreditation despite similar training. Hence my point 2 above, as clearly QTS is not properly inclusive. ‘Unqualified’ can be used in several ways, and is ambiguous especially as regards FE, or those ‘en route’ to being a teacher through for example GTP. My fourth point is unfortunately an aspiration, not something we currently do well. I want to record my own professional development – both formal and informal – much better, but the lack of an agreed structure means everyone will use a different method. This is something the GTC could have done while working, if it had really been working in our interests. But this is a separate issue and one I will return to in a future post.

As I understand it, Gove’s decision here is not about FE. It’s about academies. I can’t get the image out of my head of Gove and his lackeys, sitting in an office, rubbing their hands with glee as they see teaching colleagues on the same side ripping each other to shreds. I really hope that those secondary colleagues who have made FE staff angry did so through ignorance, not deliberate choice. I have tried to make my position clearer here, and hope others read, consider and where necessary apologise.

Perhaps now would be a good time to consider what the real problem is. Do we want to argue with each other about how we should use the term ‘qualified’, or should we focus on the skills gained through a variety of routes? Most importantly, should we focus on the problems that might be experienced by pupils in schools which choose to employ untrained staff without the opportunity to learn how to teach?

I’d really value comments and responses. (The title, by the way, was chosen when I was not sure if, on reflection, I would regret my tweets. I’ve decided I stand by them, even if they didn’t express my thoughts as well as they should have done.)