Care why, try hard

Guest post by Lisa Worgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation @VicAcademies

“Where are we going? How are we going to get there? And why are we doing this? Because if people don’t care, they won’t try as hard…”

@DavidBreashears, film-maker and climber, Inspiring Leadership conference, Birmingham ICC, 2016

The week of the Inspiring Leadership conference was an interesting moment on reflection in both my role and in life more generally. I spent much time thinking about what drives people to make a difference in the world around them and why this is ever more important in the world we live in today.

My thoughts started with a particularly interesting meeting with a group of children from one of our Trust primary schools. I was probing them around what felt important in their learning and how engaged they were in it. The responses that I got from these children were astonishing. They told me about how much difference they felt they had made in their last term’s Learning Challenge (called ‘Catastrophes) and that they had realised that ‘catastrophe’ wasn’t just about massive world disasters.

They had realised that families in their own school and community were going though catastrophe every day of their lives. That they didn’t have money to feed their families, or means to get clean and washed. And so these children researched and planned how they could help, working alongside the food bank to generate over £500, and using this to purchase a large amount of personal items to help families accessing the food and resource.

These children passionately articulated the difference they had made to their community, to how much they had learnt, but actually the pride they had in what they had achieved.

Children who care about the world are the future of this world. A world where not everyone is kind hearted and wants to make a difference. A world where children, adults and family go through suffering every day.

I continued to reflect on this during the conference whilst listening to author and humanitarian, Zainab Salbi tell her story of growing up in Iraq in a world of oppression and suffering and how she used this experience to motivate her. She knew that she wanted to change the world for women all around who were struggling in difficult circumstances and has spent so much time since planning opportunities for helping them to do this.

But much deeper than this, she has  taken the time to understand why this was important for her do this – how her own personal story has helped her go on to clearly help her make a difference.

And then, at the exact same time as I sat listening to the inspiring Zainab, the news of the death of Jo Cox, MP came through over the news feed. A woman who spent her short life being incredibly clear about her ‘why’. Her actions through speeches in Parliament and campaigns in constituencies and her active charity work demonstrated a very clear cause – to allow immigration to have a positive effect on communities. Jo believed in a better world and fought for it every day.

Our children are the future leaders of our world. We can help them be the kind of people who care and want to make a difference. Taking the time to plan for having a clear purpose in learning and helping them know why they are doing something can really change the meaning for children in our classrooms. This is about finding an ‘authentic’ real rather than ‘pretend’ real too – allowing children to really plan an event to bring communities together or to fundraise to buy that piece of rainforest.

Whatever it is, the learning should actually make an impact and not be falsified to feel real but be created to feel like this rather than actually existing in the world.

By creating a curriculum full of these learning experiences, we are helping children make the world a better place and giving them the learning process that shows that they have the power to change the world, but only if they care why and try hard…


Confessions of a Former KS2 teacher

A guest post by Claire Eades, teacher @VicParkAcademy

I have an awful confession to make: I was once an Early Years and Key Stage One detractor. Until I walked into Victoria Park four years ago, the overwhelming majority of my teaching career had been played out in upper Key Stage Two classrooms, then my spiritual home and comfort zone, where I could converse with children in my own voice and expect independence – and certainly no snotty noses (or worse). I confess that in my ghastly ignorance I looked down at the staff who took on these seemingly feral small children and I scoffed at their seemingly low expectations: the phrase “Oh but the little ones can’t do that” heard so often in training sessions and staff meetings, summed up for me all that I deplored about them. What did these people actually do? Surely they weren’t really teaching, not like the ‘proper’ teaching that I was doing?! As I write this now, I feel such shame for ever having been so arrogant and foolish, for disparaging colleagues, for being so judgemental about something of which I knew nothing. I shudder at my conceit and that of former upper Key Stage Two colleagues who shared these disgraceful thoughts. I write this blog now as one who has atoned for her sin and who is now a fully fledged convert to the joys of teaching in these phases. I want to share my experiences and my journey of discovery not only to cleanse my professional soul but also to highlight the fact that I believe that all teachers, detractors or not, should experience what I have experienced in order to become better practitioners. I also want to show that a school which embraces the ethos of creativity and a child led approach, such as Victoria Park Primary Academy, would never nurture such a warped view of teaching and learning.

Frankly, I would have cleaned the toilets at Victoria Park if that had been the only work available, so keen was I to be a part of the school. Luckily, the toilets weren’t beckoning but a Year One class was. I was terrified and horrified at the prospect of having to become one of ‘them’ but the then deputy head persuaded me to give it a trial period of a week – I think that cleverly she knew that it wouldn’t take any longer for me to change my mind. At the end of day one I said an emphatic ‘no’ but by day four I was begging for the job. How could you have been so readily converted, I hear you cry, you must have had the convictions of a weasel! It is hard to explain the turnaround but it was an enormous shock to me that I could actually enjoy the experience. The children were full of enthusiasm and energy and they brought out my own exuberance. As the term progressed, I soon realised that they would rise to any challenge put in front of them, that if the bar was raised they would meet it and that expectations could be as appropriately high as in any other setting. Their yearning to learn was infectious and they brought so much of themselves to the learning experience. My fears soon turned into dreams that maybe I was meant to teach this age group. The transformation was as thorough and sincere as it was fast. To watch a child first learn to read and write and understand mathematical concepts is a moving and privileged experience and one from which I have derived the most pleasure in my working life. To facilitate it is more rewarding and joyful than I can ever explain – these moments are why I became a teacher and I found that working in Year One afforded me so many more.

So this September, when I faced the prospect of becoming a Reception teacher – one that would have previously filled me with dread – I embraced it with open arms. I was aware that I would need to change my mindset even further in order to do the job: however, this has been made easier because working at Victoria Park has mutated my professional DNA, adapting my beliefs and practice to the environment in which I work. Across the school and the curriculum, creativity, independence and a child led approach are key. The children I guide through their learning experience are at the centre of everything and right from nursery they are equipped with the right tools with which they can build their own path. Aged 3 or 11, our children are explorers and pioneers, learning through technology, play and experience. Yes, I have sat in meetings and thought ‘The little ones can’t do that’ and can understand now why it is said so often but the atmosphere in which I work would never leave it at that. There is a ‘have a go’ approach in the school which encourages creativity in the staff and a desire to find a way that works for all the children. Risk takers aren’t derided or frowned upon, new ideas are explored and positivity is the norm. Like early years children, staff are supported and encouraged to embrace all opportunities and shape their own learning. My experiences in this phase and Year One are a reflection of the model of the school as I have explored my potential without fear or barriers and with a sense of anything being possible. My whole outlook has been framed anew.

So I say to anyone who thinks as I did, go down to the younger classes – find out what it is that they do and break down any prejudices that blind you. Open your eyes and hearts: the staff there do amazing things and deserve respect. Become a convert, a zealot even, and return to Key Stage Two, preaching and proselytizing until all ages are served as well by their teachers as the younger children are by theirs. I am lucky to work in an enlightened school that already knew this and turned it into a mission to provide children of all ages with an education that is fun, immersive, purposeful and personalised. It has played a crucial part in my professional development, making me a better teacher and, yes, a better person: I have learnt that the only little person that couldn’t do something was me and I am grateful for the chance to have done something about it.

A piece of cake

The football season is now in full swing. As I stood on the touchline at the weekend watching my son play I asked the dad next to me how his week was at work. ‘Oh, the usual – same as it always is. Boring.’ I sensed already that the conversation was over but he then turned and asked me how mine was. ‘Oh, the usual – I stood in front of 400 kids and scoffed 16 cakes.’ As you do.

For a minute I thought it might have been the same dad who I told last season that I went to work one day dressed up as a medieval knight. Or as a smelly tramp. Come to think of it, it probably was the same man because he looked at me out the corner of his eye and walked off. I know now why nobody stands next to me anymore.

You have to be a teacher to really understand it. Trying to explain to non-teacher friends what you do is very difficult. Take the Medieval Day for example.  I could probably name 3 or 4 of my friends who would pay good money to be able to hire a costume and play at being a knight in armour for the day. Throw in a marquee, a medieval feast and a big battle and for some it’s a dream-come-true. But for the staff at VPA, it’s all in a day’s work. I sometimes have to pinch myself that I’m actually getting paid to do these things. Remember Dara at the TES Awards’ Ceremony? ‘It’s amazing they do any work in that school.’

This is why our curriculum is so Real, Immersive and Purposeful.  School really is the best party in town. Staff are not afraid to well and truly ‘Let RIP’ so the children are entranced and captivated by all that goes on around them. The opening Learning Challenge of the year always kicks off with the ‘Big Adventure’ and the hook of all hooks – the ‘Grand Day Out’. This year though, the trip alone wasn’t enough. Michelle Harrison, our Reception teacher and DT leader wanted to take it a step further and integrate – quite obviously – a trip on a fleet of vintage double-decker busses with baking a cake. Not necessarily the first cross-curricular link that comes to mind.

And so the inaugural ‘Bake Off’ was born.  And what a success it was too.  Pupils spent the week immersed in all things to do with cakes (quite literally). Each class had to use TASC wheels to research, design, create, bake and ice a cake of their own based on their ‘Grand Day Out’. They then had to ‘pitch’ it during the assembly prior to tasting. So we had cakes designed around  the Tudor Oak House, Moseley Bog, the local fire station,  a remembrance memorial and Bourneville to name a few. We had (failed) sparklers going off, drummers and even a minute silence. Our Business Manager tried to slip in a ringer but we saw through his guise and disqualified him for being slightly not in the under-11 category (even though it was by far the best cake).

Although the finished products were fabulous and flavoursome (cheese aside), the learning that took place before and after was amazing. I was invited to join 6M’s class at the end of their maths lesson following the judging. They confidently informed me of the mean, median, mode and range of the scores and how their learning had all been linked to their Grand Day Out. Their TASC wheels and CoRT 1 activities were perceptively completed and it was very difficult to have to choose one overall winner (thanks Mrs Mullaney).

A brilliant week in all, made to look so easy by the staff. And I haven’t even mentioned the sponsored Mini with the winning ‘Grand Day Out’ design on the roof.  So even though no-one talks to me any more at football matches, it’s great being a teacher.  Especially when you get to have your cake and eat it.