Checklists – high impact, low stress

I always thought I was an organised person until I became a teacher. When I did, it became apparent that the only reason I’d previously coped with what was required of me was that I didn’t take on more than I was able – didn’t take on extra responsibilities, didn’t see too many people, kept a rigid routine. Teaching exploded all of that with its endless demands, and on a couple of occasions has brought me to the edge of breakdown as a result of them.

I’ve long been looking for solutions to this (in some ways I’m addicted to the productivity section of the App Store), and so when I read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto it naturally resonated with me. Gawande’s idea, as expressed better by Harry Fletcher-Wood here, is that this staggeringly simple thing – a short list, to be either run through at certain key ‘pause points’ in an operation before proceeding or to check that all tasks needing to be completed have been completed – can have an enormous difference in situations of great complexity. And he’s got the evidence, too, in that his checklist project was taken on by the WHO and has literally saved millions of lives.

The theory behind it is that master surgeons or pilots internalise a lot of procedural knowledge, which most of the time they put into practice perfectly. However, in complex situations, their intuition can give them false confidence; they assume that they have done everything when they’ve in fact missed something out, and then people die. Implementing a checklist simply refines that mastery; it doesn’t deskill a practitioner, it takes the burden of remembering off their shoulders so that they can focus on what they’re doing.

Harry’s book is currently getting a lot of traction on Twitter, and rightly so – it’s brilliant. He’s not just outlined Gawande’s idea, but he’s given concrete examples of checklists that he uses himself and that he gives to students. Seeing how somebody has used these lists is invaluable, if only to give you ideas of your own, and he’s also given suggestions of how his lists can be adapted for your classes. That said, the proof of any technique like this is whether or not it actually saves time. So I tried it.

I picked out ten checklists from Harry’s book that I thought might be helpful – eg. Is this lesson plan complete, am I ready to start this lesson, does this action deserve a sanction – and had them laminated. This is what the airlines do – they have a file of checklists for any given situation, which they follow if it comes to it. I’ve treasury-tagged them together and they sit by my desk for when I need them.

On the first day, they saved me from three issues. I checked before starting my first block of two lessons and realised I’d forgotten to print off a key worksheet for the lesson; I printed them and no-one was the wiser. I was meant to collect homework in from one class and I’d forgotten – the checklist caught it. That night, I checked my lesson plans and ensured they had models and a ‘hook’ to get students into the lesson. Most did. One did not. Fixing it took me two minutes.

On day two, I faced a difficult Year 10 class. I sent a boy out and checked my sanction checklist. Normally I’d have spoken to him and given him a stern talking to before issuing a warning. I checked the list. It took me fifteen seconds and I realised he needed a sanction. There was no doubt in my mind. I felt calm, professional and in control. I did the same thing later that day with a difficult student in one of my difficult Year 7 Literacy classes.

On Thursday I had a parents evening. Using the checklist for that was a no-brainer.

I am not a calm and peaceful person by nature. I am anxious and prone to stress. Mostly, I cope with teaching, and I do a decent job for my students, but it wears me out. And for me, that is my favourite thing about checklists. They are easy to set up and they take the stress out of some of those processes. There is so much to manage, so many different decisions and judgement calls to make, that sometimes it is nearly impossible to hold on to them all. So far, two weeks in, checklists have made that manageable for me, and may just make teaching manageable in the long-term. Are they a panacea? Of course not. But as a low-cost, high-impact solution, their importance can’t be overstated. Not to mention the time they’ve saved me in surfing the App Store.

[You should buy Harry’s book Ticked Off here and Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto here. Both are well worth the money.]


It’s ‘just the job’

Look around your English department. There are probably around ten people in it, right? Maybe slightly more or less, but let’s take that as an average. Day in, day out, they plan lessons and they input data and they prepare for exam classes, and you’d think that they’re basically okay.

Except for that one guy. He’s the one who looks visibly exhausted. Who talks about it in the staffroom, ashen-faced. Who gets to Friday and looks drained, and who always seems to be there until 7pm each night (and who you suspect probably works when he gets home too). He’s not going to last. He’s not got what it takes. He’ll be out in the next year, either by capability procedures or by his own means. That’s the reality of the job, isn’t it?

Only it’s not. Look again at that department – at your colleagues who express a frazzled weariness at the new English Language GCSE, who are worn out by the endless cycle of marking, who are already now dreading your March moderation meeting and who talk about spending their whole weekend on their books. Of them, eight of them are stressed. Five of them are so stressed that they are considering leaving teaching entirely. Sure, they don’t show it as visibly as that one guy, but they’re feeling it. Maybe they don’t have what it takes either. They need to develop better strategies. They’ll be out within three to five years, and good riddance. The system needs new blood.

Now look at the two people – maybe three, if we’re feeling optimistic – who seem to be coping. Both in the profession less than five years, but thriving, even. With a TLR behind them and a seemingly limitless ability to handle the pressure that’s thrown at them. Their books are marked, their lessons are planned, and they are SLT material given time, no question. The school needs more people like them. Britain’s students do. Why can’t everyone be like them?

Occasionally one of the department goes to its Head and tells them that they’re stressed. Depending on what day of the week it is, he may listen patiently and tell them, “this is the job”. Alternatively, he may laugh bitterly, and tell them, “we all are. This is the job.” This is what you signed up for, so get used to it. Eventually, that one guy will go to him and say, “I can’t handle this”, and he will be told, “maybe this isn’t the job for you.” And he will leave, and he will be replaced.

In any other industry in the country, if 83% of your workforce were routinely stressed and 52% so stressed that they’re considering leaving, it would be clear that the problem wasn’t the people but the job. Managers would be tasked with fixing it, hours would be changed, policies adjusted and their impact measured. Something would be done.

In any other industry in the country, when you were taking your most motivated, driven and passionate people and they were being burned out within three years, you would say that there was a problem with what they were being asked to do – that something you were doing as an organisation was not working. You would realise that you were haemorrhaging talent, and that kind of haemorrhage wasn’t sustainable. You wouldn’t hold up the 20% that were succeeding as a triumph, you’d lament the fact that 80% weren’t just ‘failing to cope’ but were actively being destroyed by the job.

Instead the members of that English staffroom are being told that it’s just the job, and if they aren’t cut out for it, then maybe they should move on.

It can’t be the job for much longer. It mustn’t be.

It’s ‘just the job’

The ‘making it up as you go along’ behaviour policy

Something stuck in my throat on a personal level after reading the excellent post that Tom Sherrington wrote yesterday, describing his observations of teaching and learning at HGS. In that post, he says this:

Where behaviour is problematic, often it’s because too many low level issues are tolerated before the system kicks in: tolerance of being late, missing equipment, calling out, undercurrent of chat etc.

That hit home because, for all the good progress that I am seeing with my Year 8 class, that is a fair description of what every single lesson with them is like. From observing colleagues, I’m certainly not alone in that, and I wouldn’t say entirely to blame either; however, I’d like to explore what I and the school are doing to see if we could improve it at all.

I work in a new-ish school and the behaviour policy is regularly revised; it has been through four different incarnations in the past two years. When I arrived there was no formal system of consequences – if students were causing trouble then teachers set detentions as they judged it, and if someone was especially difficult then there was the option for a senior team call-out. There was no isolation, no student support unit, no faculty or HOD or after-school detentions.

This caused chaos. Students would be called back for detentions and they would claim that they had detentions elsewhere, and there was no way to follow it up swiftly enough, and no consequences if they did lie to you. After six months or so, the school moved to holding faculty detentions on set days of the week, run by middle leaders. This worked a lot better, but was limited by the fact that detentions were once-weekly, and persistent offenders got the same sanction as one-time offenders.

Then the school started with W1, W2 and a ‘parking’ system where students were sent out of lessons, which seemed logical enough but which was hampered by the fact that we couldn’t do anything with students who were persistently disruptive (mostly in a low-level fashion). They would be referred to middle leaders, middle leaders would refer to SLT, SLT would claim that these issues weren’t serious enough to do anything about and so not act on them, and then these persistently disruptive students would get away scot-free. So they would continue.  Many teachers naturally gave up on the parking system and used their own methods instead, aware that parking wasn’t working. This was logical, but over time SLT got increasingly frustrated with teachers who were using the parking system and started criticising them for doing so, seeing other teachers who didn’t use it (or very rarely used it) being much more effective with their classes. Which leads us to now…

Recently we have done away with the language of W1, W2 and ‘parking’, because the formality of this structure was seen to be a straitjacket for teachers. There is still the option of having a student removed from your lessons because they are rendering it ‘unteachable’, a very serious sanction, but this is only to be used as a last resort in order to make sure teachers have done everything they possibly can to keep students in lessons. Detentions are again run at teachers’ discretion, and staff have been briefed about making sure that sanctions truly hit home for each of our students – which will be different depending on the individual.

There are both positives and negatives to this approach.

The positives:

  • It’s empowering to the individual teacher. It gives you the freedom to make sure you’re doing something that will actually impact your student.
  • It’s expressly designed to encourage teachers to use every tool in their arsenal to get students back into the lesson before they get sent out – definitely a good thing.
  • It’s built, for the most part, around trusting that teachers are able to do it right.

The negatives:

  • It’s hard for students to know where they stand. A W1 has a definite status; now students are all at sea in knowing how well or badly they’re doing during a lesson (this is designed to improve self-esteem by taking away the sense of failure/self-judgement.).
  • It’s prone to one of the problems we started with – teachers unable to follow up on detentions because they’re not centralised.
  • It’s also prone to inconsistency. There’s very little way to tell that all teachers are enforcing similar levels of behaviour across the board; who knows if what you do in English is the same as in Maths?
  • It’s basically managing by charisma. If you’re somebody who finds classroom control difficult, then SLT have basically taken away a major weapon in your arsenal; now you have to get them on your side some other way. For NQTs joining next year, it sounds like a nightmare.
  • If SLT start monitoring removals from the classroom, then in all likelihood people will simply stop using it for fear that it makes them look like they can’t manage behaviour.

Truthfully, from where I’m standing it feels a little bit like a behaviour policy based on ‘making it up as we go along’. My biggest problem here is inconsistency; we supposedly have the highest expectations of students, but what happens is that I end up applying a different rule to 8X3 than I would to my 9Z1, my top-set Year 9 class. My line manager tells me that’s because kids are human beings and we can’t be so ruthless with them, but I think I disagree with him; I think anything less is selling them short. I get that the school has made a choice – some of our kids have low self-esteem and if they get in trouble in class it might put them off learning. However, I’m tempted to argue that what we’ve got here is just going to lower self-esteem further, as sanctions may well end up seeming personal.

What I love about HGS is how consistent their policy is, how well-reasoned and thought-through each stage has been. Teachers know what C1, C2, C3 are given out for, as do students, and those have been followed through on (very publically). Our policy, so far, suggests that for some of our kids the behaviour rules are just too hard – and what that translates to is saying that “oh, kids from that estate just can’t behave”. Which is nonsense, of course, but it’s the kind of nonsense that also means you end up with low-level disruption in your middle-sets until your dying day.

Or maybe I’m being too cynical. How does this compare to your schools’ policies?

The ‘making it up as you go along’ behaviour policy

8X3 – this term’s topic

This term, 8X3 are set to be studying a unit on newspaper writing. None of them read newspapers, of course, but we’ve attempted to make it more appealing to them by focussing it on ‘celebrities’ in the hope that they’ll want to write about them.

Well, I say ‘we’. I mean the department, as frankly this isn’t my ideal Unit – give me something with some texts to study – but I do understand why we have to do it, given the demands of the English Language paper at GCSE. The final outcome is a tabloid or broadsheet front page, a combined English and ICT task that generally results in not a great deal of writing. It was a nightmare when I taught it with my Year 8 middle set last year, and it looks set to be the same this year. It’s a piecemeal Unit with only a very loose theme and no real ‘hook’.

As a result, I’m doing what any good teacher does in this situation – inventing one.

I figure that what they need is a story to believe in. Something that they care even slightly about. So  we’re going to start off by inventing a celebrity together – a male actor, model and millionaire. We’ll write some tabloid articles about his exploits, and the lurid nights out in Hollywood. We’ll mock up a front page showing a photograph of him being arrested. We’ll put together some broadsheet columns, hand-wringing about how he’s setting a bad example.

Then we’re going to kill him.

We’ll write about the discovery of his body, about his rival who might have done it and what they think happened to him, then maybe even an obituary commemorating him. Tasteless? Maybe, but tasteless seems to be what gets them enthused.

The whole idea has actually got me quite excited. I’ll write about RAG123 marking and a few other pedagogical initiatives later this week, but for the meantime, wish me luck…

8X3 – this term’s topic


Bloom’s taxonomy states that the highest-level skills are evaluation and synthesis, something that I’ve not always agreed with, but something that I’m increasingly finding to be true when it comes to teaching itself. Life seems to be one long series of trade-offs, a consistent evaluation and re-evaluation of what is truly important and what you have to compromise on. They are certainly the skills that require the most energy and thought at the moment, as I find myself asking questions like:

Do I use the scheme of work written by our 2i/c, even though their lesson objectives generally read along the lines of “to be able to write a newspaper article”, and free up more time for marking, or do I dedicate the time to planning, thus reaping a better outcome – but also one I may not have the time to mark? Do I invest in behaviour management and spend hours in pastoral and parental meetings, mentoring students on their self-esteem, and plan less thoroughly in the hope that my lessons will become easier to teach? What if a member of SLT walks in on an unscheduled learning walk?

And then the more personal. Is it more of a crime to leave my Year 10s essays unmarked, perhaps compromising their GCSE grades, than it is to sacrifice time with my wife?  Should I invest more heavily in my planning so that when I come home I am less exhausted, more able to be fully present, or should I leave teaching at the door at 7pm, and try and reclaim what time belongs to me? Should I take up hobbies for my own sanity and well-being, or should I conserve my energy for school? Is it worth going to the pub for an hour and a half after work on Fridays to build relationships with colleagues, even though I know that will mean I spend my entire Sunday marking and planning if I do?

I am currently finishing off teaching a comparative scheme of work for Macbeth and fifteen unseen poems. It is a monster unit of work, and we have taught it in seven weeks, which is simply not long enough with the students we have. Every lesson is a compromise. If I teach this, I can’t teach that. What do they most need to know? What will most help them with this task? There is no real way to win, only a way to manage the losses, and every lesson I and my colleagues write take a long time for us to plan.

It seems that way with teaching generally. It is no wonder that increasing numbers of teachers are suffering from anxiety and depression – as I have, in fact, myself, although not whilst teaching – because the level of thought required to ‘manage those losses’ is exhausting. I became anxious a few years ago because of a job where I had too little structured responsibility, and so I started trying to solve all the problems I could to justify my paycheck, answering emails at all times, never resting, never giving myself a day off (admittedly, it didn’t help that I owned a Blackberry, and had forgotten the password to disable my email, either). When was I allowed to take time off? When was I allowed to take space for me? What was there left of me that was not my job? It didn’t help that my manager shrugged his shoulders when I asked him those questions.

I recognise those same issues with teaching in a different form – the managers who shrug their shoulders, the endless demands and requirements to compromise, and the all-consuming workload. It is endemic in the profession now, and it suggests that ours is a profession structured and built upon a foundation of anxiety and instability. It is impossible to do this job properly, and so in the least negative way possible, all is compromise. I would tentatively suggest that it might be good, perhaps, if any future education secretaries were to narrow the list of requirements rather than asking teachers to do it all for themselves?


Reclaiming poetry

When I started out as a teacher, I used to read poetry in my spare time. I loved reading poems, because poetry takes your head to a different space – it requires you to focus on the language and as a result, you can’t do it fast. As an English teacher, I speed read out of habit and it takes a real effort to slow down to read a novel; which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy reading novels, but I don’t exactly ‘dwell’ in them. Poetry was a good tonic – to enjoy it, you had to slow down, and so on off-days I’d sit with a cup of coffee and I’d read poems.

I haven’t done that for a while, and that’s mostly because I’m too busy. I’ve replaced my reading of poems with reading teaching blogs, in between binge-watching episodes of The Walking Dead. I’m early on in my career and I figured that it makes sense to get as much of a handle on pedagogy as I can, to ensure that when I go back to school in a week I can teach at my very best. Surely nobody could argue with that.

And yet… teaching blogs, whilst useful, are hardly great literature. Realistically, nobody should read thirty or forty of them a day. And nobody can exist on a diet of information indefinitely – you’d end up getting stressed, or overwhelmed, or never managing to switch off. It would actually, over time, make you a less good teacher, wouldn’t it? As when you saw your kids again you wouldn’t be alive to the possibilities of language and great writing, you’d be thinking about how to best implement your new ideas on marking. Useful, yes; inspiring, not so much.

There’s no use complaining that what I’ve ended up doing “isn’t why I got into teaching” – no job ever really works out exactly the way that you expect it to once you’re doing it, and I was hopelessly naïve when I started anyway. Pedagogy is important, but there comes a point where the marginal gains you’re making after reading yet another blog are so marginal that they’re almost not worth it. And I know by now that I’m at my best with my classes when I’m doing close language analysis on a piece of writing that makes them feel excited, or moved, or challenged, and I’m no use to them as a teacher if I’m not reading things that make me feel that way.

Maybe you think this is idealistic nonsense, but pedagogy isn’t all that there is. For my own sanity and for the wider goal of making my students people who enjoy literature and embrace new and challenging texts and experiences, I need to keep reading – even if that means reading just the top five blogs of the day. After all, what good is it to gain an ‘Outstanding’ OFSTED grade but lose your soul in the process?

Reclaiming poetry

Making the Tempest work for me

When they told me I was teaching The Tempest to a Year 8 middle set a year ago, I went out and re-read it, and instantly thought it was stupid. It’s filled with unfunny Elizabethan comedy, it has about a million characters, it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot and it also doesn’t really seem to have an ending. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen, and so I did what any good teacher would do: I grafted. I sat down at half-term and worked out how in the world I was going to communicate this weird, sprawling beast of a play to teenagers who didn’t understand the language of Roald Dahl.

After a few hours head-scratching, what I came up with was this. The Tempest is basically a play of recognisable ‘types’ – stock characters who you’d see in fairytales. There’s the wizard, the princess, the monster, the genie, the villain.

They got it, to my surprise. They got it because it was simple. It linked to some of their prior knowledge, they knew the stories and what they were supposed to think about these characters, and they could build on that. It was a good feeling, the first time I felt like something really worked for me as a teacher, and I’ve been trying to recapture that on some level ever since.

I’ve been re-reading Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick recently – lots of people shouting about Switch on the blogosphere at the moment, but I’m just a humble teacher so there’s limits to how much I can do with it – and I like their principles for creating a sticky idea, which have a lot in common with Dan Willingham:


I’m prone to overcomplicating things, but at heart that’s what my best lessons have been – they have taken a complex idea and communicated it in a simple, concrete, story-based way. I remember hearing Katie Ashford talking about the power of narrative at ResearchED and it being a revelation; I went away and came up with Mr Simile, who’s insecure and keeps comparing himself to everyone else and Mr Metaphor, who’s a shapeshifter. It stuck, and my kids have still got it today.

Stories are powerful, and they’re also, deep down, kind of easy to teach – even with the difficult texts. Yes, you have to work at it, but the Tempest sticks with my kids because they can relate to it and identify with the characters, much like The Outsiders has stuck with them; they took a bit of unpicking, sure, but there’s something in both of those stories that they want, something that’s both exciting and profound and will help them see the world in a different way. Even 8X3 got excited about that; who doesn’t get excited about being told a good story?

Only problem now is that we’re done with The Tempest, and next term we’re doing one of those brutal English Language units instead, where they have to explore the language of newspapers and write their own. They don’t read newspapers, and the immediate point of contact isn’t there, and I don’t know how to make it stick. It’s about language for effect, and if anyone knows of a sticky way to teach that I’d love to hear it, as I’m still drawing a blank on that one.

Still, nothing like a challenge eh?

Making the Tempest work for me

Expecting miracles

Expecting miracles

The results are – at least partly – in. 8X3 have finished their reading assessments. As I circulated, it didn’t look like they’d done badly, although there were a fair few of them who had still written half-hearted answers to the ‘long answers’ sections.

And yet…

There have been no miracles. My HoD walked in the other day and commented on how it was like seeing a different class from the start of the year, which is great. They are more positive and more engaged than they used to be. Their understanding of The Tempest is better than I could have hoped. Their relationship with me is an awful lot better than ever before too.

But their writing is still lacklustre. Imprecise, flabby, and often incoherent.

It is not too much to ask that they will address that, but it is too much to ask one person to achieve. Without a whole school drive and common approaches to reading, I don’t hold out much hope.

In a bleak moment last week, I asked 8X3 if there were any lessons where they worked in silence. They said that “all of our teachers try, but nobody succeeds”, apart from one teacher – and then they begged me not to make my lessons like this teacher’s. I like and respect this teacher, but I have heard similar things about them from other students, and I hear rumblings that SLT are watching them closely, and it leads me to despair. What hope is there for 8X3 if across the school they are not being asked to work rigorously in silence for any time at all – if that is an abnormal situation?

I expect miracles because I have read the blogs from Michaela Community School (like this, this and this, all great) and because I follow Doug Lemov on Twitter, and because I know that they are happening elsewhere. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them either. But I can’t make them happen where I’m going to get in trouble for sending students out if I enforce the rules; I can’t make them happen if I can’t follow up students with any kind of meaningful deterrent; and I can’t make them happen if I, like my friend, am a lone voice in the wilderness crying out for silence and focus. It has to be all of us, or at least most of us, or we’re finished.

What is happening with 8X3 is not a miracle, it’s an improvement. Maybe I should be satisfied with that, but I’m not – because it’s still going to be too little, too late if we’re not careful.

Expecting miracles

On cowardice

I took a cover lesson today, after which I called a kid up for his behaviour in the lesson. He, like a lot of people in that lesson, was off-task and distracting others, but when I spoke to him afterwards he treated me like something he’d scraped off his shoe. He accused me of being gullible, of not addressing the behaviour of other people in that class, of picking on him because I’d taught him the year before, all in a tone designed to let me know what an idiot I was.

So far, so standard. Right?

It was only when the TA and my Head of Department (who happened to be walking past at the time) heard me venting about the rudeness of some of our kids that I realised that I’d started to take it for granted. I wasn’t planning on doing anything. I felt powerless. From what I gathered, the class teacher was in a similar situation; by all reports, he frequently endures similar rudeness from them.

My HoD insisted on following it up, and I actually protested. I told her I didn’t want the hassle, didn’t want to have to call his parents, and actually didn’t feel like that it was that big a deal. I told her that because when I’ve called students up on uniform misdemeanours in the past they’ve come and sought me out to flaunt their undone top buttons. One student pursued me round the school for three months shouting the word “nonetheless!” at me after I’d spoken to her at break; another repeatedly yells my surname at me in the corridors since I asked her to speak to me properly.

What I feel is bullied. What I feel is that, increasingly, the kids are winning; that they are taking control, and rudeness is increasingly coming to be expected. It’s not helped by a recent SLT policy of criticising teachers who send too many students out of lessons, and the subsequent grilling about the strategies that have been tried beforehand. Many teachers don’t bother sending students out these days, as it reflects poorly on them. We have been declawed, and the students know it.

And so I find myself giving in to a cowardice that is in its own way a kind of strength; accepting that ‘they don’t really mean it’ (even though they probably do) and ‘they’ll thank me one day’ (even though they probably won’t) and all the while trying to sift through what is positive behaviour management and what is inappropriate. It’s enough to drive a man to despair. Say what you will about Tom Sherrington, vilified in the Daily Mail last week, but at least his behaviour policy at HGS is clear and well-enforced. The alternative leads us to where I found myself today, wondering if as a teacher it’s even my responsibility to address that kind of attitude.

It is my responsibility, though. Of course it is.

Whether or not it’s possible is a different matter.

On cowardice