Medical Careers

Apologies if this is a repost, but I can’t find it anywhere even though I created it ages ago. I, like many science teachers, have found that kids have tunnel vision when it comes to careers. Medicine, for a variety of reasons, is a real target for many of them. For some it’s a totally unrealistic one. The progression (anecdotally) goes like this.

  • At the start of Yr12, more than 30 in a year of 120 were ‘going to be doctors’. When it is pointed out that we might send two or three off to medical school in a good year, there are blank looks. Even asking “Are you one of the three smartest students in the year?” doesn’t reach everyone.
  • By halfway through the year, more than half of the students now know medicine isn’t happening for them. They immediately start looking at Pharmacy.
  • By the start of yr13, with results in hand (and yes, I know that’s changing) we used to be down to between eight or ten with a reasonable chance. Some of those who had hoped for Pharmacy are now clinging to the hope of Biomedical Science. And have a private tutor.
  • By Christmas, a few more are being realistic and have switched to other plans; I’ve found they’re a bit more open-minded, but it’s marginal. I had one student tell me they now wanted to do theoretical physics as it was the next best thing to medicine.
  • At Easter, between six and eight think they’ve got a reasonable chance; two or three of those might actually get in.

What’s interesting is that hardly anywhere in this do they consider other clinical options that aren’t Medicine. (Some, of course, started off hoping for Dentistry or Veterinary.) It’s as if the vast majority of medical roles, working with patients and using highly technical skills, simply pass them by. So I created a list, not intended to be exhaustive, which is linked below. Perhaps useful to kick off discussion if nothing else?

medical careers as .docx file

medical careers as .pdf



So I had a huge argument on Twitter, mainly with @biolady99.

Duty Calls

I shared a link to the news story that teachers are going to be given training about helping students with mental health issues, including recognising the early signs of problems (EDIT: new guidance as .pdf) I think this is great. I think this is really important. But I pointed out that this is more than a little ironic seeing as the support for students with identified mental health needs is, shall we say, uneven.

A long discussion followed, and as usual many of the points were hard to make clearly because of the 140 character limitation. So here I am, with three ideas I want to get out of my system by clearly expressing them.

Pointing out a problem isn’t whining

Complaining about something we can change ourselves is whining. Complaining about something minor could be considered whining. Stating a problem isn’t whining, especially when you point out a possible solution.

I stand by my original implied criticism, that before (or more reasonably, as well as) ensuring teachers are trained to spot mental health issues in our students, we should make sure there is somewhere to send them. Of course we must be sympathetic and informed in the classroom. Of course we should be able to flag up concerns in a structured way. But when CAMHS are overstretched and underfunded, identifying an issue doesn’t help my students in my classroom today. Not when they may have to wait months for appointments, let alone a useful diagnosis and treatment.

What I object to is, once again, the assumption that having us teachers do yet more will solve the whole problem. There must be an adequate service for us to refer students towards, with trained specialists. If a primary teacher notices a child has an odd gait and they help the parents make a referral to the local orthopedic service, then the experts take over. By all means give us information, training and time. But don’t pretend we’re specialists, whether we have personal experience or not.

Sharing In A Classroom Isn’t Always Okay

Of course my life affects my teaching. Only an idiot would suggest otherwise. But there’s a big difference between using life experience to inform your professional judgement, and sharing personal details with potentially vulnerable students. I absolutely respect colleagues who choose to be open about potentially sensitive aspects of their personal life. But I hope they do it in an informed way.

When I speak to my own children, I do so as a parent. I can say things to them I wouldn’t say at work, to my students. I can choose to share things that I think they will learn from, because I will be the one dealing with the consequences. As a teacher, I am in a professional role and this means I am in a privileged position.

That means I rarely speak about politics; the closest I have come is telling students, when asked, that I voted against the BNP and why. I am careful, when talking about religion – inevitable during topics about evolution or the Big Bang – to make clear I am talking about evidence, and data. With older students I might explain how some of a religious persuasion are happy to accept their text as metaphorical in some respects, while others struggle to reconcile religious claims with scientific data. I will, when asked, tell them that I consider myself an atheist and a humanist, but I wouldn’t explicitly tell them that I think their beliefs are mistaken.

I would see personal medical issues as just that, personal. I’m happy to tell kids I’m asthmatic. Occasionally I’ve discussed – when relevant – my other biological oddity (no, not horns and a tail). But I can see two very good reasons to be cautious, both about welfare.

Firstly, and selfishly, giving kids information can make you vulnerable. Sad but true – you only need one student with a grudge to use that information and your life can be very difficult. Kids can be merciless when they find something they see as a weakness, whether it’s a stutter, a twitching eyebrow or something more.

Secondly, I would see this as potentially unprofessional. Students can look up to us; we are, like it or not, in positions of authority. If my children heard graphic details of a teacher’s surgery in primary school, I would have reason to complain. If a 14 year old, when challenged by a parent about self-injury, responds that “Miss X said they did/do it.” then it will raise all kinds of questions about professional boundaries. It’s a very fine line between open discussion and promotion. (And no, I couldn’t see this applying to sexuality, before anyone accuses me of homophobia – although the paragraph above may apply!)

It’s about what we say and how we say it. Telling my students I have 2.5 children isn’t unprofessional. Telling them how they were conceived or the details of childbirth would be.

I’ve seen guidance about how mental health issues of staff should be handled within the school setting. I’ve seen and fully support the campaigns such as Time To Change hoping to end discrimination and stigma around mental health issues. But I think we need to remember that just as doctors would hesitate before sharing their own health concerns with a patient, we should think twice. I’d love to hear about any specific examples suggesting that teachers should share sensitive personal issues like this with our pupils.

What I do online=/= what I do in the classroom

Finally, it was suggested that because I’ve tweeted about – for example – religion and politics, that this makes me unprofessional. I blogged ages ago about how teachers need to make a stand for their own personal life to be seen as separate from their professional persona. In the ‘real world’, I swear. I very occasionally drink alcohol. (Cider, in small quantities, because I’m a lightweight.) I eat more chocolate than I should.

None of those make me unprofessional. They make me human.

If sharing opinions outside my classroom about religion, politics, sex or anything else makes me unprofessional, then something’s gone badly wrong. If students choose to follow me on twitter (I block them when I can, but my professional account is unlocked and will stay that way) then they’re choosing to be exposed to those non-workplace opinions. And to be bored senseless about teaching stuff, incidentally.

If I was naming and shaming my students on twitter, that would be a problem. If I was openly criticising my workplace or colleagues, I’d be in the wrong. Live tweeting lessons with photos of students without clear consent? Not on. But spending gained time discussing national policies on mental health in young people, implications for the classroom and professional boundaries? That’s not just professional, that’s CPD.

Please comment and respond; I’m particularly interested in any links to model policies about what staff should or shouldn’t disclose to pupils about (mental) health. How do other professions handle it with potentially vulnerable clients/patients? What does the law say and what is the union position?

If you wish to share personal stories anonymously, either take care commenting or email me and I’ll add it stripped of any identifying metadata.

Reluctant Teenage Readers

I tweeted a while back how frustrating it was many of a class of fourteen year olds seemed incapable of reading for fifteen minutes without distraction. I could understand it if I had handed out copies of The Origin of Species, but they choose the reading material. They can bring in their own books or borrow them from the school library (or my own selection), or they can bring magazines.

Admittedly, I am probably also a long way from ‘normal’ when it comes to reading. It’s an unusually busy week when I don’t read four or five books, usually a mixture of fiction and fact. I have an upstairs book, a downstairs book, one in the car and several on my Android. (Currently You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen, The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson by David Didau aka @LearningSpy, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey and Where The Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre, if you’re interested.) I would rather read than sleep and, in fact, often do. So it was always going to be hard to understand their extreme reluctance.

So I did some research.

An old item in the Telegraph discussed a link between kids reading at 16 and a higher chance of having a professional-grade job in later life. Sadly this probably says more about the kids who voluntarily read a lot as teenagers, than ways to encourage readers at this age. The comments below this article in the Guardian are quite depressing, and there’s really not much in the way of solutions. A more recent article on their professional network is more constructive, but still focuses on the books that could be offered.

LoveReading4kids is an online bookstore with a section for reluctant readers, but it’s more about books than strategies. Their downloadable leaflet is more aimed at parents than teachers. I had a look at BookTrust, but their research page has more about evaluation of their programmes than anything else.

The research page at the Literacy Trust was much more useful, although most of the ideas they have for engaging with reluctant readers need a whole-school approach. Not much I can do alone for Year 9 students in one form time a week! The most recent survey results, however, were interesting. I’d recommend having a look yourself if you’re interested, but I was shocked by how little the young people surveyed read for pleasure.

55% of KS4 students (58% of boys) read once a week or less. A third of KS4 students (40% of boys) agreed with the statement “I only read when I have to.” This covered all aspects of reading, including magazines and online, not just books. And it’s despite around three quarters agreeing that “the more I read, the better I get,” with roughly the same response across all ages.

Of course, difficulty in reading is identified as a major factor putting young people off reading. There are many approaches to this, none really applicable in form time. In my situation, I don’t think it’s a significant factor as they have a free choice of material and our library is well-stocked with a range of options. Another problem is that even those who do happily read seem content to stick with familiar and non-challenging books, long after their skill level increases, perhaps increasing boredom.

I suspect part of the issue is that they are using this area to assert their independence and provoke confrontation. The social cachet from defying the teacher – even passively, by repeatedly reading the blurb on the back instead of the book itself – is worth the few minutes of boredom.

So what can I do? It does feel like a broader approach is called for than the options available to me in form time. The research has certainly highlighted the problem, and in some ways reassured me that it’s not a ‘local’ issue. But it doesn’t solve it. Tried so far:

  • Rewards/sanctions for those who repeatedly remember/forget.
  • Suggesting 200word mini-essays “Why I would rather be bored than read.”
  • Keeping a selection of my books to hand.
  • Sending students to the library, where we have a range of choices including graphic novels.
  • Reminding them of magazines that they could use.
  • Passing on recommendations from other students of good books.

I’ll pass on my comments to the Head of Year – it’s a mandated form activity – but suspect I will be told to persevere for at least the remainder of the year. Any other suggestions?

Whose Role Models?

I seem to have been writing a lot more about political issues than classroom practice recently – my apologies. This post is a quick response after I read this recent article from a Year 12 student, as published by the Teacher Support Network. One sentence in particular caught my eye:

“Teachers are role models and should act in a way where there is no room for criticism.”

Now, I have two major concerns about this attitude, separate but linked.

Role Models

Yes, we are role models. We demonstrate, hopefully, good attitudes and behaviour. We show our students what it means to be an adult. Of course, all adults do this, deliberately or accidentally. When we vote, and explain why it matters. When we attend a church for a faith we don’t have, to get our kids into a school we think is ‘better’. When we tap a stranger on the shoulder to return the coin we saw them drop. When we slow down for a safety camera, then speed up again. When we are wait politely in line, ignoring aggressive behaviour from others. Each of these actions, these moments, teaches something about the ‘right’ way to behave. In the classroom, this is part of what is referred to as the ‘invisible curriculum‘. I think of it as an extra subject area, one called ‘Civilisation’.

So yes, teachers are role models. But teachers are people too. I don’t spend my life planning to be a bad example. But equally, I’m not going to spend every waking hour wondering whether I’m being watched by a student. Why shouldn’t I have a life? Why shouldn’t I do the things I choose to do, out of school and off the premises?

Is a teacher being a bad role model if they smoke? What about when they have a few pints at a wedding reception and dance really badly? Or argue with their spouse in public? Should they be obliged to put money in every charity box they pass, simply to play the part of a good role model for any pupils who happen to see them do it? If I choose to hold my partner’s hand in public, or have kids before I marry, is this anything to do with my professional life?

Of course, the other things about role models is that they can inspire change. Sometimes the behaviour we model for pupils is something their parents don’t like – and this time I’m not talking about simple bad habits or minor errors. An openly gay teacher is a role model, but it’s one that some parents might see as unwanted. Homophobia means that lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers still often conceal their sexuality from kids, and sometimes even from colleagues. I would never criticize a colleague for doing this – but equally I feel that telling them to do so, so as not to ‘influence’ children, is ignorant bigotry at best.

I tweeted about this article yesterday and had several interesting responses. @alomshaha pointed out that in questions of faith, or the lack of it, defining a ‘good role model’ is also tricky. I’m sure that the religious parents of some of my students would think my atheism means I’m a bad example to their children. Does that mean I shouldn’t answer questions from kids about my beliefs? Or that I shouldn’t challenge children who tell me that the universe is 4000 years old, that evolution never happened or that human beings are made out of clay? (No, I’m not making that last one up, and no, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

No Room For Criticism.

“I’m not saying that teachers should not have a life outside of school, but just in case of meeting a pupil in a neutral area they should conduct themselves in an appropriate manor.” (sic)

Actually, that’s exactly what you’re saying. Who chooses what is appropriate? If you’re suggesting that there should be no room for criticism, you’re giving all the right to those who choose to complain. Whether it’s smoking, drinking or wearing a bikini, somebody somewhere will object. Who gets to choose the standards teachers are expected to live up to?

I totally accept that there are some actions which cannot be accepted. I happen to agree that teachers who don’t guard their FaceBook accounts are being careless – I choose to blog and tweet discreetly for similar reasons. I don’t think many people would argue for criminal behaviour to be ignored, or actions that represent a risk to the children in their care during the working week. But like everyone else, teachers are entitled to a private life. Nobody cares if a group of shop assistants have a night out and wander into a strip club, or if a bus driver likes to gamble, or if a bank manager takes a life drawing class. So why should teachers be accused of unprofessional behaviour if they spend their own time doing their own thing? Their actions might incite comment, and people will have their own opinions – but that’s not the same thing as saying that criticism is okay.

I really don’t think many Year 12 students would really expect their teachers to be perfect role models, every hour of every day. (Those who have a teaching parent would probably have a particularly interesting viewpoint.) I’d love to see how students expect us to behave, what they would see as acceptable, for teachers as opposed to other careers. Maybe this is a discussion that needs to be had, but the questions should be; “Why do you expect teachers not to be human?” rather than “What would you allow teachers to do in their own time?”

A line needs to be drawn somewhere about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Fortunately, we already have that line. We don’t need every individual parent, or each newspaper editor greedy for sales, telling us what is and isn’t okay. I make my own choices, in my own life. I’m happy to commit to being a role model in the classroom and on the school site. But my private life is mine, and just because I’m a teacher doesn’t give anyone the right to tell me what I can and cannot do.

Peace and Quiet?

So they’re gone.

After (nearly) five years my form have had their last regular day, signed their last leavers’ book page and talked over the register for the last time. A sudden quiet descends and, just like those of us will children will testify, that makes us uneasy. When they’re quiet is when they’re up to something. Hopefully, in their case, revision. But this post isn’t about that, but instead what I wish I’d done while things in the form room were still noisy.

I wish I’d gotten more photos of them achieving – at sports day, during inter form, in their one appalling attempt at an assembly. I did save their first school picture, for a little nostalgia on their last day. Okay, a little sadism too.

I particularly wish I’d got a group photo each year. It would have been nice for them to see how much they’ve grown as a group – the same room, same uniform, but growing from 11 to 16.

I wish I’d kept better track of their other achievements – drama, music, success in school and out of it. A running record, starting in Year 7, would have been useful for reports as well as for final messages. (Writes note for his next form.)

You know, I can’t think of much else. I don’t wish I’d been softer on them, because although it’s been unpopular in places most have admitted that my support – read that as unrelenting attention to the details of planners and deadlines – has helped them to be ready for exams. Over the past few years over a third have had some kind of major issue (court case, bereavement, other family trauma) for which I’ve been able to offer discreet support or help them out behind-the-scenes. It’s just that by the nature of such problems, they wouldn’t admit to their mates was a positive thing. So it goes. I’ll have to live with being the ogre.

And now, I get to enjoy the peace and quiet of a form room with no form. Twenty minutes, morning and afternoon, without kids. Blissful calm.

Until I get a cover…