New Directions: Widening Participation to HE/Cambridge

I realise I have not been blogging at all really over the last year. However, I still remember how incredibly useful and encouraging so many people were to me when I blogged during my training year and start of NQT year. Although this is a little different, if you did enjoy any of my earlier blogs, please do have a quick read and help me to make a difference in my new role.

I am very pleased to have successfully passed my NQT year – and I learnt a lot. The year took many unexpected twists and turns, but it has led to me branching off slightly into a new direction; I finished teaching (temporarily or permanently, I am not sure!) in July and am now very happily 5 weeks into a new role as Schools Liaison Officer at Girton College, University of Cambridge.

My role is under the remit of Widening Participation and Outreach; essentially the University and all the Colleges which make it up continue to aim to make sure that no person is put off from, or disadvantaged during, making an application to Cambridge (and other top universities) because of any aspect of their social, racial, religious or financial background.

From our website (

“We recognise that there are often perceived barriers which deter students from applying to Cambridge, so we want to ensure that students, teachers and parents and supporters are as well informed as possible about the Higher Education options open to young people and particularly the Admissions process and what student life is like at the University of Cambridge.

We seek to be clear, honest and open about our Admissions policies and so we want to work closely with schools to remove misconceptions about Cambridge and to help students as they think about their futures and whether or not Cambridge may be for them.”

It’s an amazing role; of course I have been fairly quiet as it’s currently the school holidays but have lots of exciting projects and events lined up as soon as schools start back in September. If you want to find out more about what we can offer students, schools, teachers and supporters please follow our twitter feed (@GirtonApply), Facebook ( or email me for further details at

Obviously, one of my key aims is to explain the Cambridge specific application process and what it is like here, but it is also my aim to increase potential engagement with HE at any institution and on any course that is right for that student. We work, for example, with younger students to explain HE very generally and show them why it might be a good option for them, and if it is, how they can give themselves the best shot.

I feel particularly passionately about this; having worked in both state and independent sectors, I have seen the difference in potential time and resources that the latter have for guiding students in this regard. This will not ever stop. So I feel very strongly about doing whatever I can to make sure that students of the highest academic potential of any background are considering, and if they want to, applying to universities like Cambridge.

How can you engage with me/help this?

My predecessors have sometimes found one of the biggest challenges to be engaging teachers themselves; and as we all know teachers can have a huge impact on students perspectives and aspirations when it comes to HE.

We have particular ‘Link Areas’ which each Cambridge College targets its work with – for Girton our areas are:

  • Camden
  • Wolverhampton
  • Sandwell
  • Dudley
  • Solihull

If you teach or work in a state school in those areas, it would be particularly beneficial to connect – ideally, we need to get a named contact in every Link School (preferably Head of Sixth Form/Guidance/HE Advice etc) to communicate with. If you know any teachers in these areas, passing on these details would also be greatly appreciated.

However, we can also work with any school, and so any teacher with an interest in HE advice or who teaches students with the academic potential to apply to Cambridge, please do get in touch.


Twitter: @GirtonApply


Many thanks for reading,







On adapting to and learning to love technology in the classroom: Getting Started

I have recently started working at the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge, a school which so far I have found to be an extremely inspiring place to work, with wonderful students and staff alike. It is different in many ways to my previous school (independent, currently single sex in the senior school but moving to a ‘diamond’ formation). Despite slight mixed feelings about moving from a comprehensive to independent school (do I feel guilty? Yes. Is it the best thing for me and my development right now? Yes. Will I go back to the state sector? Quite probably), I am really enjoying it and am learning *lots* every day. I wanted to restart my much neglected blogging today by reflecting on one of the big learning curves I’ve faced over the last few weeks: adapting to a school where use of technology and digital learning  features centrally to teaching and learning, school organisation and communication, and even, rather excitingly, to their outreach strategy and wider plans going forward. In summary, I love it. It makes my working life easier, it seems to be improving my teaching and my students are able to connect in ways I hadn’t previously considered. This post considers how I have adapted in these first few weeks, observations about my use of technology and my plans and questions going forward. As ever, thoughts, comments and advice are eagerly welcomed.

As a teacher very early on in my career, it goes without saying that my main priorities and development needs are rooted very much in becoming a good teacher – improving my subject knowledge, reading lots, trying out new approaches to improve how my students are learning and, importantly, reflecting, reflecting, reflecting. I have so many different areas to develop, and this post considers just one of those. If you’d told me this time last year, or even six months ago, that I would be spending any amount of time thinking about technology and ‘digital learning’ I’d have never believed it. With so much on my mind, I really saw technology as something I would think about in a few years time, when I felt competent at…er, teaching.

But I have to admit my mindset about technology and its place in the classroom and in my development as a teacher has changed quite dramatically in the last month. I used to see it as something almost separate to becoming a good teacher, some ‘add on’ that may aid some aspects of teaching and learning, but was not something I yet needed to concern myself with. When training, if I am truly honest, I used to flick over the chapters in my ‘learning to teach’ books that mentioned technology, I ignored all #edtech chats on Twitter, and I don’t think I ever used anything more than a PC or an IWB in any of my lessons. I am far from a tech phobic, and regularly use gadgets and interactive apps in my social life, but I really hadn’t put much thought into technology’s place in the classroom.

That mindset was probably never going to work at the Stephen Perse Foundation (see Principal Tricia Kelleher @StephenPerse or Head of Digital Strategy, Dan Edwards – @syded06 – Twitter feeds to see why). What I have found particularly reassuring and inspiring about the attitude towards ‘edutech’ at SPF, however, is that technology is viewed as just another ‘tool in the toolkit’ and it is only considered important when, and if, it improves something about the school, most centrally, of course, if it improves the learning experiences of the students. All students and teachers use IPads regularly but, of course, there are many, many times when pen and paper do the job better, and so pen and paper is then what’s used.

Seeing technology as a possible tool in my gradually building toolkit has made it seem both less scary as a new teacher, and also more important. It is, surely, my central aim to learn to use whatever tool will best improve the learning of my students. Very often, these tools will be the more ‘traditional’ approaches to teaching – questioning, well planned lessons and effective assessment and feedback – but I realise now that, sometimes, the best tool may involve technology.

So what have I learnt and observed so far?

The importance of technology being a central part of whole school strategy, not just a new fad in which neither staff nor students are truly invested. I have seen, previously, a case of students and staff being given IPads without an overall strategy about how they would be used, and while I am sure that they were used effectively by some staff and students, the impact of such a tool was, overall, minimal. You can’t just have the technology, you need to embed it within your strategy for teaching and learning.

– In order to do that, good quality training is vital. I am a fairly quick learner when it comes to technology, but I would not have had a clue how to use my new iPad effectively as an educational tool if we hadn’t received several sessions as part of our start of year INSET. What was particularly good about this was that some of the sessions were led by other classroom teachers who had found a particular app to be effective, and so were able to deliver the training on a level that their colleagues could both understand and, importantly, see why we would want to use such an app in the first place. Where training was less effective was when staff were left, literally, asking ‘Why would I want to use this?’.

An individual teacher’s way of teaching and  their mindset about technology are important. Being the age I am and beginning my teaching career in a time in which technology is increasingly being used in the classroom, I guess my mindset about technology’s role in education is fairly malleable and if I go to a school where it is considered important, I am inevitably going to see it as important. Clearly, this is not the case, nor should it be, for everyone. I really don’t think the use of technology should be forced top-down into the classroom, as the experience for everyone, staff and student, will inevitably suffer. I wonder, then, what the best approach is to ensure technology is used successfully in a school without overriding the views, experiences and competencies of its teachers? 

How have I actually used technology so far?

Primarily, so far, my use has been centred on organisation, communication and sharing of resources. We use Google Drive as our main internal file storage, allowing very easy sharing and co-editing. I still occasionally encounter problems with this, and it’s very easy to accidentally move (or remove!) files that others might depend on, although this risk is obviously reduced with training. 

Linked to Google Drive, is Google Classroom, which I am finding very useful for sharing lesson resources and homework with my classes, and making announcements/linking them to interesting resources and articles as and when I find them. I am definitely still finding my feet with this one, and will likely blog in the future about it, when I can start using it more as a collaboration tool rather than just as a sharing and organisation one. 

In terms of my own teacher organisation, I have been using iDoceo as my mark book, attendance record and homework organiser. Again, it’s early days, so I may post more about this when I start using some of its more interesting features.

In the classroom, having every student with their own iPad has allowed for greater flexibility of activities, and easier (and I *think* more effective) differentiation (more on this in the future).

This week, I plan to use the iPads to aid my 6th Form students understanding of how to integrate ‘critical analysis’ into an essay, by easily displaying some of their work on the screen for the rest of the class to deconstruct, discuss and improve as a group (Yes, I realise this could just be done with a camera, but past attempts have shown me that it involves too much faff).

In a few weeks time, we also intend to use FaceTime to allow a student who will be off for several weeks to be able to be ‘present’ in her A Level lessons.

What problems or limitations have I encountered so far?

Mindset of the older students – my KS3 students are far more used to the apps and gadgets than the 6th Formers who I have found to be more reluctant to using them, and sometimes even forget their iPads (but as this is a school expectation, can be treated in the same way as forgetting their file or other needed equipment)

Wifi failures! Admittedly a lot fewer than expected, but when this happens, it can be frustrating, and definitely has highlighted to me the need for flexibility.

– My own knowledge of what is possible, how to use particular apps….

Questions I have….

1) How can I best use technology to allow greater collaboration between students, classes, other subjects, other schools…? Any advice on this, especially from a History teacher’s perspective, would be greatly appreciated.

2) Is my excitement about the possibilities of technology going to distract me from improving other areas of my teaching? I really hope not, and in fact technology does not feature centrally on my actual action and development plan for this year, but I guess I can see it as a potential risk at times.

I hope you can tell that I am excited by what technology might have to offer my teachinng, but also cautious of the ‘side effects’. I plan to do a series of posts as I get more comfortable using technology effectively. I might even conclude that it is not as important as I currently think, who knows?  Please do feel free to share your thoughts/offer me advice, all is appreciated.

Happy weekend
Miss Nell

‘To they or not to they?’: A trainee history teacher’s struggle with similarity and difference

(NB: Title cheekily stolen from a Teaching History (Vol 135) front cover)

For one reason or another, I have not blogged in a very long time. Now it’s half term, and I’m half way through my trainee year.  I wanted to reflect on something I’ve been working on recently for my PGCE. It is probably only of much interest to History teachers out there, and please please please share your insights, suggest things, tell me I’m doing OK, tell me I’m completely barking up the wrong tree. Any constructive feedback is useful to me at this time in my training. 

One of my recent university assignments has been to plan, deliver, assess and evaluate a unit of work which focuses on developing a particular ‘second order concept’ in pupils’ historical understanding. I did some reading, and set about planning a Year 7 unit focused on developing pupils’ conceptual understanding of ‘similarity and difference’ (or ‘diversity’ as it’s sometimes referred to).

Stealing what I thought was a good enquiry question from a Year 7 SHP textbook, my Year 7s and I set about, over around six lessons, trying to answer ‘Did people love or hate living in the Roman Empire?’. The idea was that students were going to break down any initial, generalised preconceptions about the Roman Empire, and leave the unit with a much more complex and diverse sense of what it meant to be Roman, and also have developed their analytical ability to make sense of historical similarity and difference which they could then apply to other historical contexts.

Armed with a wealth of ideas from Christine Counsell, Mark Bradshaw, Elizabeth Carr and Kay Anthony about what it means to ‘get better’ at diversity, and some activities which should help move pupils in the right direction, I planned five lessons and an assessment. To be honest, from the comfort of my own laptop and in my own mind, I was feeling pretty chuffed with overall plan. This, I was sure, was going to be an outstanding success.

Indeed, it started out well, with pupils demonstrating to me that they were initially prone to making overgeneralisations about the Roman Empire but, after playing Christine Counsell’s excellent ‘Generalisation Game’, they were very (VERY…) eager to start challenging generalisations. (I guess you know that an activity has engaged them when certain students continue to shout ‘TOO SIMPLE!’ at me in the corridor, two months later…)

Despite a very promising start to the unit, the next few lessons and the work produced in them left me extremely unsatisfied. I could not, at the time, really put my finger on what it was, but I knew something was not quite working. My classes were, certainly, developing their substantive knowledge about ‘what life was like’ for a variety of groups – soldiers, Christians, gladiators, wealthy men, women, poor laundry girls and slaves. They were able to reel off a host of facts about these experiences (‘Laundry girls had to wash clothes with urine!’ being their favourite) and, they continued earnestly in their quest to break down generalisations. And I praised them for doing so.

And then they started writing things like this:

student work example

This was a very typical response. Most  students’ conclusions about the experience of the Roman Empire could essentially be summarised as ‘It was entirely mixed, completely depended on who you were, there is no one experience, everyone had good and bad experiences’, all of which are almost as simplistic as saying that the Roman Empire was positive for everyone. Sure, they had absolutely done what I’d asked them to do and continually challenged generalisations. They had also gathered a large amount of information about ‘different experiences’. But, ultimately, they ended this unit with a hodgepodge of substantive knowledge about how life was for different groups without being able to analyse the ‘nature and extent’ of similarity and difference, nor being able bring the experiences together to have any sense of what it ‘meant’ to be ‘Roman.

It was only at the end of the unit (duhh) that I realised several major, major flaws that had led to this. Firstly, of course they could only speak of this hodgepodge of different experiences; I did not give them the means to do anything else. In my planning and delivery, I was so obsessed with getting them breaking down generalisations and appreciating the diverse experiences of the Roman Empire, that I did not address areas of commonality. AT ALL. This was not, ultimately, an enquiry on ‘similarity and difference’ but simple on ‘difference’. There was absolutely no chance of my students developing a ‘sense of period’, something which has repeatedly been shown to be vital for historical understanding.

The challenge here is one that is central to history itself, as a subject. On one hand, we need to be willing and able to break down generalisations, and study the particular to be able to appreciate the rich diversity and interesting small stories that make the study of the past so interesting. And yet, in history, as in life, we need to be able to make generalisations. We need to be able to talk about ‘they’ or ‘the English’ or ‘the culture’, otherwise historians could not make sense of anything at all. We could not say anything meaningful, much in the way many of my earnest, wonderful students ended up writing over-complicated and ultimately meaningless paragraphs about how ‘everything is mixed’ or ‘it all depends’.

And so, I was left feeling somewhat disheartened. BUT, I must sing the praises of this PGCE assignment – the process of having to carefully evaluate (in 5,000 words…) this unit, and keep going back to the literature, has been really, really worthwhile. To take a step back from the daily short-term planning and properly look at what has happened (or not happened) in a unit has been really enlightening and has allowed me to draw several conclusions and learn lessons for future planning.

My conclusions about teaching history from this experience

1) Substantive knowledge about the past is important, but only goes so far without progress in conceptual understanding, which here, was lacking.

2) History is so challenging. The concept of historical diversity is even more so. To try and teach 11 year olds to develop their understanding of a concept which, when I really sit down and think about, is mind-boggling even to me (When is actually it OK to generalise? How far can we generalise without being true to historical reality?) is bloody difficult.

3) I need to do a LOT more reading about this.

4) If I had time to put this amount of thought and reading into everything I teach, I would be a) a much more effective teacher and b) really love my job.

And I’ll leave with some questions/things that are still puzzling me. Any history teachers/historians/anyone out there who can help or advise or point me in the right direction, please do fire away:

  • Would it even have been possible for Year 7s (they were in their second half-term of secondary school at this point) to have been able to grasp the complexity of this concept, even if it had been taught in the most effective way we could possibly have devised?
  • Just how rubbish was my original enquiry question? On reflection, I think ‘Who were the Romans?’ might have been more effective?
  • Where should I go now with these students when we next encounter a ‘diversity’ focus? (Which should be later in the Summer Term when we look at different medieval cities across the world).
  • How do you go about teaching similarity and difference?

Many, many thanks for any advice or feedback.

Happy Half Term one and all!

Miss Nell



Mughals Revisited : Did they ‘engage’?

Today, I team taught the second part of a two lesson enquiry into the Mughal Empire. Last week, we planned and led a really rather ineffective lesson, which I posted about here. Today we had the chance to try again.

From my last post, you can see that the big flaw in our first lesson was that we failed to give (or allow them to ‘discover’, or whatever) anywhere near enough knowledge and context for them to be able to use the paintings in a historically useful way. We didn’t want them to leave our second lesson still asking ‘But who actually were the Mughals?!’, so we planned a very content-heavy lesson today, primarily through group work leading to poster making and mini-presentations.

There were some absolute successes – the pupil who had spent most of our last lesson staring out of a window, only contributing to make it clear how bored she was, and how pointless the lesson was, was an entirely different learner today. There could be a whole host of reasons for this (perhaps last lesson’s behaviour was uncharacteristic of her, or today she was just particular switched on), but I also have to conclude that the nature of the activity did ‘engage’ her – she took the lead on creating her team’s poster, working well with the others and ultimately leading the presentation. Elsewhere, all but two girls appeared to ‘engage’ throughout, off-task chat was low, and we ended up with a set of (mainly) decent posters and presentations, on different aspects of Mughal society with the audiences listening actively and quite happily completing a bingo-style worksheet.

I could say we were successful in terms of ‘engagement’, except I’m not entirely sure what they really means. I’ve been using inverted commas because I am not quite yet comfortable with it as a term – we have heard it over and over again throughout the last three weeks, but I feel it has different meanings to different people, and I’m totally unsure about how to measure ‘engagement’ in the class in front of me. I would say, on balance, that today’s lesson never really led to more than a surface engagement with the tasks at hand.

Almost everyone contributed to their group’s work, and some individuals really excelled at it. But in the end, I’m not sure what they will have taken from it other than some rather discrete snippets of ‘information’ about Mughal society. Partly, that was inevitable – we were teaching a pretty much random topic, just for two lessons, before they went back to their normal course of study – but partly I think it was down to the nature of the particular type of group work we set. I would suggest that it is not that hard to ‘engage’ with producing a key-word poster and 2minute presentation, alongside 4 or 5 classmates – but whether many of them ‘engaged’ with the actual history of the Mughals, I am not convinced. Perhaps it would be useful for me to make a distinction between ‘task engagement’ and ‘content engagement’, and perhaps both are necessary. Or perhaps I should be coming up with better tasks that don’t require that distinction!

Once again, I’ve learnt a lot today. But I’m left feeling a little confused about what type of engagement I should be aiming for from my classes, and how exactly I can tell whether they are engaged.

Any pointers, opinions, advice, please fire away. I really am all ears at this stage.

Miss Nell x


Learning Lessons from a very ineffective lesson on Mughal Paintings


Today, I taught the first of a two part enquiry on ‘What can we learn from paintings about the Mughals?’. I planned and delivered this with a fellow History participant to a Year 8 class of girls in a London comprehensive, different to the one I am placed at from September. This is one part of our six days of ‘School Centred Learning’, and as you will hopefully gather from this post, I am finding it an extremely useful experience, despite delivering an undeniably ineffective lesson today. Here, I reflect on what went wrong, and the useful lessons I myself have learnt today.


The Lesson

In our planning, after much discussion, my partner and I decided that the best way to tackle this was to spend the majority of one lesson looking at paintings as historical sources, and developing their skills in analysing paintings in a historically useful way. The Mughals were an entirely new topic to the class, but we decided to provide only a very brief outline of who the Mughals were, where they were from and what they did. We then spent the majority of the lesson using the idea of  ‘Layers of Inference’ (see here) to analyse different Mughal paintings, with the intention of them leaving with a greater understanding of how, and why, historians might usefully use paintings as a source of information about Mughal society.

What Went Well

The strength was the ‘delivery’ of what we planned. I felt confident and at ease, and really enjoyed teaching the girls. Despite feeling very nervous beforehand, as soon as the lesson began, the nerves completely disappeared. One of our observers commented that I ‘had a good presence’ and use of voice, and I made sure I circulated lots. My use of a ‘3-2-1’ countdown was largely effective. Timings worked out just as planned, and transitions were mainly smooth.

Some girls seemed to make progress in the way they were thinking about paintings as source, and the quality of response and questions raised by some (the small minority) suggested to me that they had made progress towards achieving the skills-based objective of understanding paintings as a historical source.


Despite the smooth delivery and personal enjoyment of the experience, this was a very unsuccessful lesson in terms of what actually matters: we did not give the pupils the means to reach the lesson objectives, and the objectives themselves were somewhat muddled and not well explained. This was partly a result of some disagreement between myself and my partner about what we were trying to achieve – and the actual wording of the objectives changed numerous times, even after we had planned the activities we were using. We should have started with a very clear idea of what the learning outcomes and objectives were, and worked backwards to plan activities from there. I knew that in theory before we planned the lesson but the time-pressure and added challenges of working with a partner meant I lost sight of that through the planning process.

There was another fundamental flaw to the lesson: we did not provide the necessary substantive knowledge required for the ‘evidence’ based activity to result in the learning we intended. The majority of the girls engaged well in the ‘layers of inference’ activity, and we received some really insightful responses. However, it was the moment that a (very bright) girl answered ‘I don’t know what it ‘shows’ us because I still don’t know anything about Mughals’ that I realised the huge flaw. The girls were making lots of good inferences from the paintings, and asking lots of interesting questions about what was going on – but they had absolutely no way to validate or refute their inferences, apart from my own responses.  A far more useful activity would have been to complete the ‘layers of inference’ task, but follow it up, or have running alongside, a content based activity,  where the girls could ‘check’ their inferences with some facts/context/information. I am surprised I made this mistake – I have read so much on the importance of knowledge, and I really thought I understood that , but a combination of some quite differing views with my partner, and my slight obsession over a particular activity (in which I lost sight of the objectives) led me to use an activity that certainly was intriguing to them, but after which they had learnt nothing, other than a vague idea that they must look past the surface layer of a painting, and ask particular questions of it. The activity had potential – but it did not follow through to any substantial learning outcome.

Finally, throughout our lesson there was a slight element of confusion about expectations. To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to ‘classroom management’ for this lesson – we knew nothing about the class until we observed them in the period directly before our lesson, and we had very much been using it as an exercise in planning a history lesson than in practical classroom management. In practice, the girls were largely very ‘well’ behaved, but they are an extremely chatty group. They responded very well to a ‘3-2-1’ countdown, but there was quite a lot of off-task chatter when they were supposed to be getting on with the tasks, and on occasion we did not have their full attention (or even complete silence – rooky error!) when giving instructions. In hindsight, we should have thrown in some explicit ‘I expect you to face me when I am giving instructions’ and insisted on full attention. Overall, the ‘classroom management’ aspect was OK, and certainly not the biggest flaw of the lesson, but it was far from ideal.

Getting feedback and reflecting

I found the feedback session from the normal class teacher (and new Head of History) and our IoE tutor exceptionally useful. We were given detailed and constructive feedback, most of which really squared with my immediate feelings about how it had gone. Hearing someone else articulate my vague feelings about the lesson made it all so much clearer in my mind. I was surprised by absolutely none of the feedback, but couldn’t have articulated it in as clear a way as he did, and it has really helped me to evaluate the lesson properly. I sincerely hope that the feedback that I get over the next couple of years is as constructive and genuinely useful as that which we received today – I have left this whole process feeling like I have a much greater understanding of the process of planning a good historical enquiry, and I fully intend to make sure our next lesson plan (Part 2 of this Mughal Painting enquiry…) takes into account this better understanding,

So, despite planning and delivering a fundamentally flawed lesson today, I feel pretty good about everything. I really think I get why it was flawed, and how to change things for next time – which, in terms of my own teacher training (if not the girls’ learning!) surely has to be the desired outcome.

Thanks for reading, any input is as ever very welcome – you may be able to tell from this post that I very much like constructive feedback!
Miss Nell



Teach First Summer Institute: Week 1 highlights

So Week 1 of the Teach First Summer Institute is coming to an end, and I am en route back home to the West Midlands for a family wedding this weekend. Tired, but very impressed and happy with the way this week has gone, here are my personal highlights of the last 5 days…

A Really excellent History Subject Studies day

On Wednesday we began our subject specific studies – which proved to be a real highlight of the week. A nice mix of information, small group and whole group discussion, and plenty of individual reflection worked really well for me, and I got a lot out of the day. We started by looking at the value and purpose of school history and how to communicate this to our students – this inevitably led to a quite animated discussion and healthy disagreement about what the fundamental aims of teaching history should be. Our tutor introduced us to the state of the debate around history education (well education more generally), which after a few months on Twitter I am obviously not new to, but I found it useful and easier to think about it in a subject specific way. It was (quite rightly) difficult to tell what our tutor thought himself, but he left us with lots to think about, with a wealth of reading suggestions ranging from SHP inspired views of teaching history, to Toby Young’s ‘Gove vs the Blob’ pamphlet and Daisy Christidolou’s Seven Myths. I don’t fully know what I think,  but I will be interested to see how our small groups’ thoughts and views progress over the next 5 weeks.

We also did some rather more practical studies, looking at how to get the most of observing others, and having a very careful look at the development and changes of the National Curriculum and future GCSE changes. Next week, we are looking at planning for progression and going into a London school, different from our employing school, to plan and team teach some Year 8 lessons on the Mughals. I think the Subject Studies strand of SI is going to be a consistebt highlight.

Induction to my new school

I have spent the last two days at my placement school. We’ve started a very practical and useful induction – doing all the admin, timetable, IT stuff, but also much more. On Thursday, we (the other TF-er and a group of NQTs)  concentrated on Inclusion and then behaviour management, observing parts of several lessons and then coming together to feedback and discuss with the two ‘Lead Practioners for Behaviour’. It was really great to be able to see some things I’ve been reading about/been told about in action, and to get a feel for the atmosphere and challenges of my school. I still feel nervous about this aspect, but I really feel like we are going to be well supported in this aspect.

Today, we had a session on Child Protection, before spending much of the day doing whole school observations on ‘excellent pedagogy’. A real highlight was the two hours after our observations where we had a session from another ‘lead practitioner’, who was really excellent in the way he guided us through ‘wading through the mire’ of our first year of practice. Amongst other things, we did an activity to identify the things that really matter when it comes to planning and evaluatinf our lessons.

We decided that:
Are they engaged?  Are they learning and making progress? And, how can you tell? were the 3 key questions to bear in mind.

We then went through the process of planning a PSHCE lesson, which I found a really useful exercise,  guided by the LP throughout.

In summary, I’ve been really impressed with my school so far. We are the first Teach First teachers there, but I think it is a really special school, with a great atmosphere and my first impressions are that we are going to be really well supported.

So, there go my particular highlights of this first week – along with this, I have to say I have met some very interesting and lovely people. I am tired, but I am happy, and very much fired up for the rest of the Institute and especially excited to join my school properly in September.

Miss Nell



Having a Strong Vision

This is Part Three of my ‘Participant Preparation Work’, introduced here.  I intended to write up these blog posts a good couple of weeks ago but I’ve been having a rather fun time of late, and very much making the most of my relative leisure time before we start Summer Institute. But with only 4 days to go, I figured I should get a move on. If I get time, I will blog my reflections of the last two modules over the next couple of days, if not I will probably incorporate them into a later post during SI.

This module is all about the oft-repeated buzzword of Teach First: Vision. It asks us to consider some questions: What do I understand by ‘vision’? Why is it important? How do I create a strong vision, and how might I put it into action? Finally, it asks us to reflect on what our own personal emerging vision is at this stage. ‘Emerging’ is the key word here: this is something that will surely be built upon and deepened as we get to know our schools, our pupils, and our own selves once we enter the classroom and across the next couple of years and beyond.

As ever, we are provided with some stimuli resources to start us off:
• A summary of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
• A blog by Tom Sherrington (‘headguruteacher’) on importance of vision for school leadership
• A Teach For All video on ‘Teachers Drivers’ – the visions of various teachers across the world
• ‘My Vision: No Limits!’ video from a Teach For India teacher.
I also stumbled across part of the TF Community site that any incoming participants might want to have a look at – it’s packed full of useful resources and info for creating a strong vision and putting into action: ‘Getting Started with your Vision’

What do I understand by ‘vision’? Why is it important?
‘Vision’ seems like one of those words that risks losing its meaning with overuse – and it can sound a bit over-the-top. But I really do think having a strong vision is an important part of teaching and school leadership – perhaps people prefer to use different terms, but the underlying concept seems undeniably important.

When I first started thinking about it, I found myself coming up with a list of rather short-term hopes and priorities for myself and my students – which obviously have their place – but which on their own seem rather disjointed, and at times conflicting with each other. How do I know which to prioritise at any one time? Are some of those things really as worthy of my time and effort as others? Where do I even start?

I remember reading Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits years ago (when I was far too young to worry about being a ‘highly effective’ person) but one thing that really stuck in my mind was his idea of having a ‘personal mission statement’ – a carefully thought out declaration of what you really want from your personal and professional lives, which you then use to guide your week-by-week, day-by-day priorities and actions. If you constantly have in mind what it is you are ultimately living for (sounds extreme, but it is powerful), then prioritising and decision-making of everyday life becomes clearer, less fragmented and more likely to lead to ‘success’, however that might be defined.

In the same way, having a strong vision for my teaching, my pupils and for education more generally can help me to ‘put first things first’. In what I fully expect to be an extremely busy couple of years, with so many different things needing my time and attention, having this guiding vision has the potentially be extremely powerful. So, in short, I am fully convinced of the importance of having a strong vision as I enter into the teaching profession…

So, how do I go about creating a strong vision? What about my personal life?
First of all, I think this is going to take time and some deeper reflection – I cannot confidently say what my ‘vision’ is at this moment in time. I have so much to learn – I don’t know enough about the nature of education, my future school or my pupils, or even enough about myself to fully articulate what I want at this moment in time. I’m not going to force it just yet, I intend to give it much greater thought over the course of the Summer Institute and first term in the classroom before I try and set down my vision.

One thing that I have been thinking about, however, is whether I should be looking to separate my ‘personal life vision’ from my vision for my teaching, pupils and education. Can these things even be separated? If my vision is going to guide my short term prioritising and decision making, I can’t help feel that my personal and professional lives are inextricably entwined. I fully expect to often face choices which straddle the two: do I spend all weekend planning and marking because I really want to have the biggest impact on my pupils that I possibly can? Or do I spend the weekend visiting my boyfriend and family because they are ultimately more important to my life?

I am really interested in what you all think – both experienced educators or newby trainees – should our vision for our students be separate from our personal life vision? Is that even possible? Is it more powerful to think about personal life and professional life as distinct areas or one big interconnected mess of conflicting priorities and needs?

I don’t quite know what I think about it for now – I am absolutely committed to working towards providing a great education and opportunities for every student I teach, and I want to make the biggest impact I can over my career. But there may well be times when that drive conflicts with ,and takes time away from, what I hold most important in my personal life. But then if I make all my decisions and prioritise according to what I want from my personal life, I might be happy and comfortable and fulfilled in many ways, but my impact as an educator might be more limited.

I think these are important things for me to think about – and as such, I have not got very far in creating a ‘personal emerging vision’ for my teaching. I think this is going to be a work in progress. Perhaps the Summer Institute will help clear up some of my thinking on this.

As ever, any opinion/feedback/experience is greatly appreciated in the comments or via Twitter/email.

(To any Teach First 2014-ers – see you in a few days!)

Miss Nell