Friday, 23 October 2015

Review - The Art of Being A Brilliant Primary Teacher by Andy Cope and Stuart Spendlow

Image courtesy of

The Art of Being a Brilliant Primary Teacher is, well, brilliant. It is a rare shining star in the galaxy of ‘improving teaching handbooks’ - it’s written from experience and celebrates the brilliant job that is Primary Teaching whilst recognising that it is one of the most physically and emotionally demanding roles. And, perhaps most importantly, there is no tick box, formulaic approach to becoming ‘outstanding’. Hence the title I guess ‘The Art…’
There are boxes though, and in a twist that reflects the authors’ style, they are ‘thinking inside the box’ boxes (you’ll have to read the book to find out why). There’s also amusing pictures, jokes, quips, anecdotes…
Therein lies the brilliance of this book. There are some meaty concepts covered in 9 easy and fun to read chapters, reflecting the understanding of the value of a busy primary teacher’s time. And on that note, you won’t be doing more. In fact you may end up doing less but brilliant-er; the key here is that you will be making the changes, fundamental changes, based on internal reflection facilitated by Stu and Andy’s humorously thought provoking content and not just attempting to apply some irrelevant one-size-fits-all solution.
Deliberately written to provide to the point advice and provocation, this is a must read. Not only is it a real passion stoker (professional and otherwise!) it doesn't take much of your precious holiday time to read through. If you or other teachers you know are in need of rediscovering the art, the passion or the core reason that teaching was the chosen vocation, then this book is a must-read.
There’s little else to say really when Stu and Andy’s paragraph sums it up so much better than I can do:
It’s grounded in pure realism; it’s self-challenging in that, when combined with a little bravery and risk taking, it will refresh your teaching until retirement day.
Oh, and in the words of Stu and Andy, ‘if you ‘get it’ then you will sense a whirring of something somewhere within...If you don’t ‘get it’ there will be no whirring and you will feel slightly irritated by squandering yet another tenner on a book that doesn't work.’

What have you got to lose? Apart from another tenner maybe.

A Year in Brunei

It's official. I'm rubbish. I wrote this in August 2015 and never got around to posting it, which is becoming a common theme. Please be warned that there are gratuitous references to dry boxer shorts and chicken ass (not necessarily related).

Almost a year to the day my family and I arrived in Brunei to start a new adventure based around my choice to work in an International School a long way from home. I thought it timely to share some reflections on our year.

Here goes, and in no particular order:

1. Goodbyes don't get easier
We've had the opportunity to share our new life with both sets of parents. There is a huge sense of excitement when our mums and dads are due to visit, not just because we don't see them for big chunks of time but also because we get to re-live the excitement of our new life, with them. Giving them the opportunity to experience, first-hand, the culture and lifestyle we have refreshes our enjoyment of it and (fortunately) both sets of parents' support for our venture was cemented, lots of worries put to bed. We are, after all, only a plane flight away - and once you're on the plane you're on your (long) way; it's easy, if not a little boring! Sending parents back home, and leaving them after returning to the UK during this summer holiday is, at best, highly unpleasant. Strangely, leaving the UK to return to Brunei this summer seems to have affected us more than last year. I guess there's less excitement about the unknown, less 'new adventure' excitement to temper the separation emotions. We know the reality of the months without seeing family. On reflection, next year we'll fill our holiday time better so there is less downtime to get emotional.
Please don't think we're sitting here crying ourselves to sleep every night (far from it), it's just that the initial separations are still hard, create doubt and make us question what we're doing - and experienced colleagues tell us it never gets easy. I guess that makes us human so it's probably a good thing.

2. 'Look Dad, a Pangolin'
Image from
Looking back on the places we've been and experiences we've had it's difficult to believe it's only been a year. We've visited places we could only dream of before, from Bali, Bangkok and Brisbane to Singapore and Manila; some with work, some for holidays and others for school residential visits and even just a shopping trip in Singapore. We've all seen amazing creatures, eaten unusual things (chicken ass anyone? It was an error and not one I intend to repeat!) and been to incredible places and when my son pointed out a Pangolin, an animal we hadn't even heard of before living in Brunei, it struck me just how much we've broadened our own and our children's experiences.

3. Multicultural living
Brunei is a Muslim country. I hadn't had much experience of the Muslim culture or in fact many others (I'd never even worked in a 'multicultural' school) before moving to Brunei and thankfully I'm not naive enough to pay attention to the almost racist, stereotypical images portrayed in the UK media. There are large numbers of Chinese, Philippine, Indonesian and European 'immigrants' living happily alongside the Brunei people, who I have found to be the friendliest, politest and respectful people - they could teach the rest of the world some valuable lessons (not though when it comes to using seat belts to keep children safe in cars). I've never felt threatened or even unwelcome - I wish I could say the same about walking around at home. My eyes have been opened to being a minority; it's odd to be stared at. Maybe being a 6' 2" lump of white man doesn't help but my 7 year old blonde daughter also gets a lot of attention.
If you want to see what living in Brunei is absolutely not like, watch an atrocious 'documentary' made by an Australian journalist clearly trying to create a name for herself. On second thoughts don't bother.

4. Brunei Life
Whilst we didn't have any real idea about what we were getting ourselves into, living in Brunei has exceeded our expectations. The weather is a consistently warm (and humid!) 32ish. It's amazing how easy life is when you don't have to spend time debating whether or not to take a jumper! Shorts and flip flops are generally the daily requirement when not dressed for work. Sweating is more of an issue - apparently you never get used to the heat and humidity, you just get used to sweating! Any slight exertion can leave your shirt sopping wet. Never before have I appreciated the benefits of air con and a dry pair of boxer shorts.
Brunei as a country is stunning. The jungle is amazing, the range of different noises, the blanket of warmth and having monkeys, snakes and spiders in your living space brings it's own excitement! Mosquitoes and sand flies in particular are a downside but it seems that the body reacts less over time.
Cost of living is low, meaning we can do the things we couldn't in the UK. Simple things like eat out once (or more) a week and a trip to the cinema for all of us costs the same as one ticket back home. Fuel costs about £12.00 for a full tank and an attendant puts the petrol in for you! It wasn't quite the same experience filling the hire car in the UK this summer.

5. Planes like buses
Given the importance and frequency of air travel in this region, the impact of a plane tragedy is something that hadn't struck me before. I guess it's that old frame of reference thing but being in Brunei when the Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines tragedies occurred gave them meaning I'd never considered before. Suddenly those numbers and names of passengers gone in an instant move from being a passing sadness and sympathy feeling to real people with real families who may well be at my school.
This also extends to natural disasters and, in particular this year, the Nepal earthquake. We have a strong contingent of Nepalese families in school and we actively sought information to make sure everyone was OK. It was a very worrying and difficult time and gave me some idea of how horrendous it must be for families in these situations.

6. All work and no play?
Very quickly the realisation that work is work no matter where you are in the world dawned. My new job, like all the others I've ever had, is busy. There's always lots going on in such a large school and plenty that I want to do. But, and here's the big one, the absence of an unknown inspection instantly reduces stress. There have been stressful times, and it's not all plain sailing, but there's a definite easing in anxiety in doing the right things for the children, rather than external visitors.
I never thought I'd say it but in some ways I missed OfSTED. I had come, 5 weeks previously, from a frantic UK state school actively under the impending cloud of an OfSTED visit (which ironically never came!) where accountability was high on the agenda. Due to the nature of my new school, this is a totally different situation and one I'm slowly adjusting to. That adrenalin shot of dotting i's and crossing t's sharpens everyone's focus to make sure the little things (and some big things) are the best they can be and, whilst I felt we'd all burnt out from over adrenalin production in the UK, I suffered withdrawal symptoms. In many ways though I think a little accountability is healthy and so I intend to hold on to a reasonable level but less than schools have to cope with 'back home'.
My career history has almost totally been in the 'harder' end of the scale of schools. I love the difference that schools make in some children's lives and in low social economic areas this can be huge, so expected to miss this feeling. What I've come to realise is that the children who need you most are the ones you're currently working with. If you 'get it', if you have botheredness as Hywel Roberts would say, you go the extra mile for whichever children you've got in your school regardless of economic position.  Children are children and I love working with them.
In terms of work/life balance I'm not sure there's much difference. The weeks are full on busy and most nights there's some work that I choose to do, either staying later at school to get it done or working at home. Either way, I'm choosing to do it - not feeling like I have to, just in case there's a phone call tomorrow lunch time, and, at the end of every day, it's warm and sunny (mostly) and the shades go on for the drive home. I love that feeling and can feel my soul lift.

There's lots more I could bore you with but, in essence, this has been one of the best years of my life. Seeing my children growing up with friends of all nationalities and not seeing someone for their culture or religious beliefs, away from the narrow minded bigotry of some aspects of UK society, is heart warming. Being able to take them diving, to tropical islands, shopping in Singapore, up to the rainforest canopy, cycling down a volcano, surfing in Bali to name but a few is just incredible. And to do the job I love, for the genuine reason of improving children's lives, without vote-desperate politicians and egocentric inspectors, means I'm a better professional and a better father.

My children and friends in the sea, in Bali at sunset.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

How to Teach Primary Maths (Anyone can feed sweets to sharks) - A Review

How to Teach Primary Maths - Nick Tiley-Nunn

Reading the foreword to this book by the renowned Phil Beadle makes it clear that Nick Tiley-Nunn is no ordinary teacher. Being described by someone who made teaching cool by doing it on TV as possibly the best teacher in the world, and certainly the best seen by Mr Beadle himself, is a pretty big thing - at least in my humble opinion. It also means there’s a lot of expectation about the contents of this book. Can this world beating teacher deliver and tell me things, after 20 years of working in primary schools, that will make me rush to school on Monday morning desperate to teach maths? Let’s see.

The introduction is, well, interesting - I know, I said ‘interesting’ about a maths book! There’s some reference to maths but a large amount of this section covers areas of problem solving (without mentioning sweets), resilience and creativity.  It is clear how Nick’s approach to maths is applicable to learning in general and I’m interested but then, right at the end, he drops in ‘SHINE’ (you’ll have to read the book to see what it stands for!) and I’m hooked. I might even be slightly excited. I know! ‘Excited’ about a maths book!

So, I’m 8 pages in and already I’ve got a number of activities I can take directly and use with learners. I’ve also met a narcissistic race of Evens and a greedy crocodile...and more and more great ideas and approaches for learning keep coming. In fact, the remainder of the book is a throbbing, gooey mass of maths joyousness. Every section of the primary maths curriculum is covered; each in a consistent style of inspiring activities and Nick’s jovial, humourous approach.  Don’t be fooled. Nick never takes his eye off challenging our learners to get the best outcomes possible; it’s just that he finds the most inspiring and interesting ways to do it.

There is only one regret I have from reading this book. I wish my own maths teachers had been like this. In fact, I wish the 1000s of maths lessons I’ve taught over my 20 years had been like this.

I have no doubt that many more children would leave primary school with a love and fascination for maths if every passionate primary teacher had this book. This book is an essential addition to any staffroom or teacher’s library; it could even change a generation’s perception of maths.

Read this book and you won’t need the foreword to realise that Nick Tiley-Nunn is clearly no ordinary teacher. Fortunately for teachers and children alike he has chosen to share some of what makes him the teacher he is and I for one will be a better professional for it.

Get your Freak on - A review of Freaked Out by Simon Pridham

Freaked Out - Simon Pridham

Ipads seem to have hit schools at a tremendous rate, which may on the surface seem like a good thing. But what about those staff who are not as technologically confident? What about those who might be freaked out by this new tool for learning? Don’t worry...there’s a book for that!

It might seem a slightly odd arrangement that, having been given an Ipad, a teacher needs a book to find out how to use it. Isn’t this a bit counter-intuitive? How can a book even come close to reflecting the multimedia digital nature of the Ipad? Is there any point in a book like ‘Freaked Out’?

First things first. Reading the back of the book instantly raises my confidence. The comprehensive list of topics covered, including ‘what a 21st Century classroom looks like’ and ‘home-school links using digital learning’ along with the reassuring blurb discussing the cross-phase and cross-curricular nature of the guide, mean expectations are high.

The book begins with a simply written guide to the physical features of the Ipad. The freaked out will take confidence from the small step guide to switching on and explanation of the buttons and icons that face the user when the Ipad starts up; nothing is taken for granted which is a good place to start.

Next, apps. The friendly ‘arm around the shoulder’ text (I had an image of Simon sitting on my grandparents sofa with a cup of tea in their best china…) gently coaxes the reader through registering for an Apple account and on to searching for and downloading their very first app! Interesting that the choice of app is Aurasma.

Hang on...the next section is about Aurasma. Surely someone freaked out shouldn’t leap straight into Aurasma? If you haven’t guessed already, this is where the book comes alive, almost literally. We are talked through our first use of Aurasma and lo and behold there’s an ‘Aura’ ready for us to scan and there’s Simon talking to us! Brilliant, and really hammers home the possibilities of this new technology.

From Aurasma we move to QR codes and these are used in the remainder of the book to enhance the content and provide direct links to items discussed in the text. Simon has included a series of icons to represent the content that will be accessed when a QR code is scanned. This enables the reader/user to decide if they need to, or want to, follow the link. Maybe they understood the text well enough to not need to watch the video.

There’s a range of further chapters that provide information and stimulate creative and pedagogical juices. Each chapter deals with key areas of implementing digital learning in schools to empower the freaked out (who I’m sure are more likely to be ‘freaked in’ than ‘freaked out’ by now) with more QR codes and a continuation of the easy-going chatty type text. It’s all very well knowing your way around an Ipad and using a number of exciting apps but once the initial honeymoon period is over there are always questions...Fear not, Simon has included a FAQ section which is made up of genuine questions asked by real human beings. They cover an interesting range of issues from printing from an ipad to implementing with a small budget. Finally, an essential glossary and the book is done.

Although really it isn’t.

Not only has Simon provided a brilliantly useful guide to enable the freaked out amongst us to start their Ipad journey, there is such a wealth of content that this book deserves to be revisited a number of times - and I’m certain it will be popularly shared amongst colleagues for years to come.

So, is there any point to this book? Does it work in this digital age? Absolutely! The use of Aurasma and QR codes provides digital content to enhance (or should it be ‘augment’) the traditional analogue book. Simon’s friendly, non-patronising tone combined with his excellent knowledge of digital learning will empower any colleague, no matter their level of ‘freakedness’, to confidently begin their digital journey. This is an essential book for the staffroom. Download it to your bookshelf today!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Oops a Daisy - A review of Teaching with Flowers by Julie Warburton

Teaching With Flowers - Julie Warburton

Ok, to be completely honest, I’m a bloke. Teaching with flowers is not something I have ever really given serious consideration to. Like most teachers, I’ve stuffed some daffodils in a milk bottle and got the kids to draw them but that’s about the extent of my floral expertise. Therefore I expected that reading ‘Teaching with Flowers’ would be a challenge.

I needn’t have worried. Mick Waters, as always, writes a compelling introduction and then we’re into Julie’s introduction, the first line of which made me feel guilty of my stereotypical blokeness as the word ‘learning’ is in the first sentence. I’m a passionate teacher so I should have seen flowers, as Julie says, as ‘another way to help children learn’. Combining her significant teaching experience and her abilities as a florist, Julie shares her experiences of working with children and flowers, with some amazing results. The underlying themes of hands-on, care, pride and quality apply to many other curriculum areas so why not teach with flowers? In case you need any more convincing there are lists of vocab you can cover as well as pages of curriculum areas - yes, ‘pages’.

Ok, so you’re convinced but you don’t know your buttercups from your eryngiums? Me neither. Don’t worry petal, Julie is here to help. There’s a full chapter on flowers, how to care for them, elements of design and all sorts of technical vocab; another chapter on seasonal flowers and what’s generally available when, cleverly organised by colour, flower name and season and much more background information.

The rest of the majority of the book is split into two main sections; one is step-by-step instructions, clearly written and supported by great photos, to create specific flower arrangements. These aren’t the ones you’ll see in the local church but practical activities for children to tackle in school. The other section is called ‘Let’s learn about...’ and provides a number of lessons that tackle a variety of concepts and knowledge from a range of subjects and shows how using flowers can enhance this learning.

The book ends with more useful tips on extending the use of flowers, or the ‘blooming curriculum’, across the school, with a special mention for Julie’s previous passion of transition. Finally there’s ‘techniques’ so you can look like an expert in front of your learners and links to useful resources. Even the index is colour coded to make the busy teacher’s life easier.

There is no doubt that this book will provide you with everything you will ever need to enhance children’s learning through the use of flowers. Imagine the smell, the colours and the excitement of a classroom with children enhancing learning through flowers. What a great experience that would be - and then you could display the results in the staffroom and cheer the teachers up too! Well done Julie for creating a book that adds an unexpected level of rich educational experience in an easily accessible form that the busy teacher, whether a trained florist or not, can readily use to bring learning alive.

I will definitely blooming go out and buy this book. No stigma attached!

Don't Change the Light Bulbs.

Don’t Change the Light Bulbs - Rachel Jones

I’m not sure how to describe this book.

I’m torn between ‘it’s my Twitter feed written down’ and comparing it to one of those shiny metal boxes in films that, when opened, a cloud of gas escapes...which dissipates to reveal rows of test tubes of coloured liquid, each one affecting the human who consumes it in different ways.

Maybe these two possible descriptions aren’t so far apart. This book takes nuggets of pedagogical gold, many from legends of the educational Twitterverse, and presents them to you on a plate.  When consumed (not literally of course, unless ‘internalising’ means something different to you) they stimulate, provoke, challenge and excite. Unfortunately I haven’t found one that will re-grow my missing hair but I’ll keep re-reading just in case.

What I really enjoy about this collection is that dipping in and out is as effective and enjoyable as reading from the front to the back. The format of numbered lists, with each ‘tip’ having it’s own design, makes them really accessible and bite-sized.  Just reading one tip is not as easy as it sounds though, as the ‘just one more...’ mentality kicks in and you’ll find hours pass by unnoticed, but you’ll be buzzing to get into school.

And really, that’s the fundamental point of this book. It’s aim is to inspire and help us all to be better at what we do. And it does. What it doesn’t claim to be is a magic bullet or a panacea; the contributors have most likely never met the learners you work with. Instead, the tips, tricks, thoughts and opinions will challenge us all to adapt and improve by applying them to our own situations.

If you’re looking for an easy to read source of inspiration that you can gain something from, in the time it takes to drink a teacher’s coffee, then this is the book for you.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Lessons From Leaving

Just seen that I didn't publish this before I left the UK!

As you no doubt know by now, I'm leaving the UK and have already left my job as a primary Headteacher of an inner city school. (If you didn't know this you can read some thoughts behind this decision here.)

I'm not going to bang on for long but through the slightly extrapolated process of saying goodbyes and actually leaving (I'm still in the UK as I write and still have another week to go...) something has dawned on me - I care much more than I realised about the people around me.

This might sound obvious and ridiculous but it wasn't until I was forced to face this fact that I actually realised it!  Previously I'd been fairly blasé about moving on; I care deeply about the children in my school and am concerned about their futures but I rationalised this by leaving them in the hands of the new head and moving on to care about my upcoming children.  But what of the adults? Here's a couple of thoughts:

In the day to day running of the school I thought they felt I valued them but... During a conversation about me leaving, a colleague told someone else that I didn't normally say nice things to them but what I'd written in the card I'd sent had really touched them!  This hit me hard - I thought I did say 'nice things'!  It's not that I go around grumping at people (I believe that no matter what the situation, a leader has to keep up the game face; how can you expect your staff to feel positive if they see you stomping around?) and I enjoy a laugh as much as the next man but maybe I'd assumed too much and missed the obvious.  On reflection I think my colleague was probably right, I don't think I did say enough 'nice things'.  For the sake of clarification I'm defining 'nice things' as professional qualities or performance, not new hair styles, successful fake tans or new car.

But why?  One possible explanation is one of the main reasons I'm leaving - the constant 'drive and strive' to be better. Nothing is ever good enough. I expect lots from my staff and I don't apologise for that and yes all schools can always do better before we get into some melodramatic debate about dumbing down schools. Given our friends at the DfE were knocking on the door on my first day, muttering something about my school being on 'the list', it was clear things were going to be tough. But maybe in all that franticness and to some extent hoop jumping, the simple act of saying 'nice things' was lost.  And maybe, ironically, recognising the 'nice things' would have brought about even greater improvement.

So what? I've learnt a couple of things, I think.  Firstly, recognise and credit the 'nice things' outside of the formal performance management or pupil progress type meetings. Secondly, and this makes me nervous, I'm going to front up and include a 360 review type activity about my leadership. Previously I've shied away from activities like this but I will do it.  (Somebody please email or tweet me in a year's time...!).

The other realisation is the impact that you can have as a leader. One card I received from a member of staff said 'I have completely changed as a teacher and you have really pushed me to think how and why I teach. I've really tried hard to be as good as you think I am' which I'm taking positively! The irony is that this card is from someone who easily ranks close to the top of my list of 'best teachers' I've worked with in the last 20 years.  I don't do this job for the glory, and I don't like to be in the limelight as I just see it as my job, but it does go to show the power of being a leader and moments like this make it all worthwhile.