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.