Boundaries

“What is it like now that you are in contact with your pupils 24/7?”

Yesterday, a friend asked me this. Today, Hannah Wilson released the theme for this month’s #MonthlyWritingChallenge and here we are.

Learners

First things first, to answer the question posed by my friend, I am not in contact with my pupils 24/7. I understand what he meant by the question, there has definitely been a shift in the way our learners interact with us as we have moved to teaching online. However, my class was used to using Google Classroom for their homework when we were still attending our physical classrooms. From the beginning of this academic session, I have been very strict with myself not to reply to any comments or give feedback on online work outwith the hours of 8am and 5pm during the working week. If the children wanted to comment or reply to each other then that was absolutely fine (and often very helpful if they were answering each others’ questions) but they knew not to expect a reply from me. I have continued with this approach during online teaching. Whilst this does restrict when I can give the learners feedback on their work (gone are the days where I could take a set of jotters home for marking over the weekend!), it has forced me to identify how I can fit giving feedback into the working day – Mote has been a real help with this. As a result, I feel I’m developing positive habits to have a better work-life balance and I’m working towards not doing official school work on the weekends – I’ve only managed this a few times but I’m taking this as progress!

Parents and Guardians

Similarly, the parents of the children in my class are used to me not responding on weekends or after 6pm during the working week. I really value strong communication with my learners’ families and (I hope I) made this clear at the start of the session. Creating a class website has really helped with this. I shared an introduction video at the start of the year and have kept the website updated weekly with a brief overview of what we have focused on during the week. This can become time consuming but I do think the benefits are worth putting in the time. The feedback from parents has been positive as it has allowed them to talk to their children about what they’ve been learning, instead of getting the usual “nothing” to the age old question “what did you do at school today?”. With learners either completing their work digitally or uploading a photograph of their work, it has actually been easier to maintain this website during remote learning.

Last lockdown, I turned off Gmail notifications on my phone as I found the constant stream of Google Classroom notifications (usually about comments) distracting and overwhelming. This means that when parents email me at a time that suits them, often after their children have gone to bed, my personal time is not interrupted by a work-related email.  However, I will often mindlessly click on the Gmail app at any and all hours of the evening and weekend and happen upon an email from a parent. Regardless of what the email is about, it will play on my mind until I can deal with it. I’ve found using the “schedule send” feature really helpful as I can address it and technically not break my own rules around replying times. I realise I could delete these apps from my phone but, again, I feel the benefits outweigh the negatives and I just need to be more mindful of how I spend my time on my phone!

Colleagues

I am lucky to work in a school where a healthy work-life balance is promoted and encouraged. Not through gimmicky wellbeing activities but by a commitment to reducing unnecessary workload and an open culture of being honest when something isn’t working. No workplace is perfect and there are definitely areas we are working on, but there is never an expectation that we work through our weekends. Achieving that is down to individual teachers but I think that is a conversation for a whole other blog post!

Last year, my stage partner and I noticed we had different approaches to work-life balance. She preferred to work longer into the evening so she had less to do at the weekend whereas I didn’t feel I did my best work in the evenings and left more to the weekend. Even at the weekend, she preferred to get all her work out of the way in the mornings and I wanted to relax for a bit first. We did a lot of informal planning through Whatsapp and I was always conscious not to interrupt her “non-working” time and vice versa! We started using a shared Google Doc for all planning related notes, linking resources and other relevant information. Each of us checked the Google Doc when we logged on and it really helped us both feel we were working together but not forcing the other person to work when they didn’t want to! I have continued to use this approach with a different stage partner, this year, and it has proved just as useful.

Space

Boundaries between work and life have definitely become blurred as we have moved to working from home. Often people talk about how important it is to have a separate space for working but for many of us, that just isn’t feasible. Before we moved house, I didn’t have a separate space for my computer. It could either be in the bedroom or the living room, as a constant reminder that there was work to be done. Now that we have moved house, I do feel I have more separation but I’m still aware of the need to step away from the screen. Moving into a different room (or even a different space in the same room!) to take breaks made all the difference. I set an alarm on my phone and focus entirely on whatever book I’m reading.

Habits

Mindful of the fact that P4-P7 are due to return to Scottish school buildings on 15th March, I have been reflecting on the positive habits I have developed and how I can continue to build these into my days and weeks when our routines change again. These are some of the things that have been working for me lately:

  • Reading – So much reading! I’ve written before that I never used to understand how people could read several books at once but I totally get it now. I’ve found having different books to read has allowed me to choose a book based on my mood. I’m almost finished Teaching in the Online Classroom by Doug Lemov which I find myself rushing to finish before we return to the physical classroom. I was hesitant to buy it as we hopefully won’t be online again any time soon, but I’ve taken a lot from it for running online book clubs and I do feel my learners are currently benefiting from my reading it. I had previously found that I was struggling to get into fiction but I’ve recently started listening to audiobooks of the children’s books that have been on my TBR list for a long time. This has allowed me to enjoy fabulous stories whilst I’m doing other things around the house. Your local library probably has a similar arrangement if you think this might work for you too. (I’d highly recommend Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy!)
  • Podcasts – Some highlights include Becoming Educated, Changing Conversations, Dare to Lead, Happier, and Practical Positivity.
  • Walks – I’m fortunate to live near a beautiful park and not too far from the beach. Whilst better weather helps with this, I’ve been trying to get out regardless of the weather! Coupling podcasts and audiobooks has helped with this – my latest only-allowed-to-listen-to-when-on-a-walk book is The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek.
  • Baths – With candles and books.
  • Tea – Always tea!
  • Art – I was recently inspired to get painting again by Fiona Leadbeater, having reflected on “what puts the i in wellbeing” after listening to Lena Carter and Christine Couser on Teacher Hug Radio. I often feel the urge to create something but never do, put off by my frustration that I’m not good enough at it… I realise this isn’t showing the Growth Mindset that I encourage in my learners. I’ve had this desire to create for a long time, as evidenced by the fact I shared this quote from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert on social media years ago.

I really enjoyed going through all of my art supplies and organising them, discovering I have more materials than I thought I did. Hopefully this enthusiasm (and ease of access) will encourage me to continue to create when we return to in-person teaching.

This is my first time writing for the #MonthlyWritingChallenge so I’d love to hear your thoughts and what works for you. Follow me on Twitter @ClareAnnePirie and keep the conversation going.

Quiet

I had planned on attending a CPD event today but I missed it. I didn’t forget or sleep in. I missed it because, after this week of online learning, I needed quiet. I needed space. I needed some screen-free time.

Despite having all the best intentions that “this time will be different”, it wasn’t. At least the first week anyway. Thankfully in Scotland, we had a bit more time to prepare than our colleagues south of the border. We had three days of preparation time where only a small number of children attended school. We are fortunate, in our school, to have stage partners to work with, bounce ideas around with and share some of the workload. During these three days, we planned what our term would look like, broke this down into the first few weeks, shared out the learning between us and started making the resources. We made use of all the new skills we learned during the last lockdown (eg. how to use this tech tool or that one, how to balance the camera so the whole book is in the frame, what times are best to record videos so you can’t hear the seagulls outside, etc) and off we went.

The thing is, even with those three days, as soon as the children came back, it was all go… much like in the physical classroom! The children really are the best part of our job. It is so lovely to see them, albeit virtually. Morning Google Meets where the whole class can chat and play games together (see here for games!) is one of my favourite parts of an online school day, the other is when they see their friends in group chats. Setting up and running these group chats is a lot of work but, in my opinion, is completely worth it. The feedback we have received from parents is that they also appreciate the impact these informal moments of connection have on their children’s wellbeing. I could write an entire blog post about one day of online teaching so all I’ll say here is that it takes time, a lot of which is spent staring at a screen. Whilst tools (like Mote) make giving feedback much (much!) easier, the time taken to create resources always takes twice as long as you expect it to.

After five days of this, the thought of more screen time on a Saturday morning made my head hurt. In the past, I would have forced myself to attend the event so I didn’t miss out. Although the event has been recorded, it’s not the same as engaging in the chat and on Twitter with the presenters and other participants. Trying to live out my word for the year, Balance, I decided to listen to my foggy head and stay away from the screen. I did some housework, drank too much tea and read some books. Then I went for a walk.

I discovered, after my walk, that today’s Action for Happiness calendar suggested we should all “get outside and notice five things that are beautiful”, so here are mine:

  • The laughter of the kids who were skating on the iced-over puddles.
  • The colour of the sky.
  • The fact I have people in my life that will watch short videos I send them from the park.
  • Feeling grateful to live within walking distance of such a calming space.
  • The fact that many other people were enjoying the outdoors on this chilly Saturday in January.

Yesterday, after spending the day rushing from task to task, juggling what I currently had to do whilst also volunteering to take on more, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about my priorities. I shared that, once again, remote teaching meant being glued to a screen, for more hours than I’m prepared to admit publicly, and that it wasn’t sustainable.

Whilst the children’s learning and wellbeing is my main priority, beyond that I find myself drawn to lots of seemingly different areas. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my professional interests and trying to identify any common themes. Even before becoming a Google Certified Educator and Innovator, I’ve always been passionate about digital technologies, both improving the digital literacy and skills of our learners but also utilising the digital tools available to reduce teacher workload and improve processes. Any time I hear about a new book club, I want to get involved (is three too many?) and promptly sign up. I love a bit of Saturday CPD on a wide range of topics. I really struggle at the beginning of each school year when we have to sign up for curricular working groups because I want to be involved in everything.

I found myself thinking back to a podcast episode I’d listened to earlier in the week, that my friend had sent me. Two things stood out for me at the time. The first was that we need to “get quiet”, make space and lean into the silence. The second was that when we are trying to prioritise what is important to us, we are often not choosing between “good” or “bad” options, but “better” or “best” which is why this is so difficult for us to do. Taking the example of the curricular working groups, it’s hard to choose just one because there are no “bad” options. I’m interested in them all and they are all working towards the same goal: improving outcomes for our young people. 

This week, I’m going to attempt to make more space for quiet to allow me to reflect on the things that I am drawn to and are important to me. I’d love to hear your practical tips for how you have identified your own priorities within this wonderful, varied world of education! Please share in the comments below or let me know on Twitter, @ClareAnnePirie.

Seven Sparks

Things that have sparked joy’ for me, this week:

What has sparked joy for you, this week?

Connectedness

In last week’s blog post, One Word for 2021, I committed to blogging each week as a way of intentionally carving out more time for myself and living out my one word, BALANCE. I was apprehensive about committing to that publicly in case I didn’t have anything to write about however, after reading blog posts (linked below) by Fiona Leadbeater, Lena Carter and Robin Macpherson, I am continuing…

This week’s efforts are inspired by a short video on Twitter, featuring Kathleen Johnston talking about staying connected and the impact on our wellbeing. I’d really recommend you give it a watch! Often I scroll past these sorts of posts as I know I should look after my wellbeing but it can be very difficult to switch off and the constant messaging to take time out leaves me feeling more guilty about my inability to do so. I imagine I was drawn to the video because of the scenery, we really do have some beautiful landscapes in Scotland!

According to the Oxford English dictionary, ‘connectedness’ is a feeling that you have a link with someone or something or are part of a group. This looks a lot different at the moment, with travel bans, restrictions on meeting and preparing for a return to online school on Monday. This past week, there have been several moments where I have felt grateful for a feeling of connectedness, most of which has relied on technology, but not all.

IRL

I was fortunate enough to be able to pop into school to collect some of the resources I will need for teaching online. During my short time in the building, I had short, physically-distanced conversations with a small number of colleagues. Although we weren’t sitting in the staff room having a cuppa and a long chat together, these in-person interactions (no matter how brief) meant that when I left the building to head home for a day of working online, I had a noticeable boost in motivation and feeling of connectedness. I know not everyone has this luxury at the moment so I am extremely grateful for that.

Same School Community, but Virtual

Our staff meetings take place over Google Meet and most people have their cameras on. This does not replace the feeling of togetherness you get when meeting in person, but it’s the closest we have at the moment. Last lockdown, we also had a drop-in coffee break each morning, where those who wanted a chat for 10-15 minutes could join a Google Meet and talk to colleagues. This was completely optional but helpful for those days where you weren’t in desperate need of a screen break. In some ways, it was nice that you didn’t know who else might be there. It helped build connections with staff members who wouldn’t usually have the same break times. These drop-in Google Meets have returned for this next spell of remote working and I know they will provide a welcome breathing space over the next few weeks.

The World of Twitter

EduTwitter seems to get a bad reputation but I’ve found it to be a supportive and inspiring place. A great way to connect with educators around the world. Since posting my last blog post and joining in with some of the #oneword2021 events (including (including the Teachers On Fire Roundtable and #CultureEd with Tara Desiderio and Lauren Kaufman), I have had some thought-provoking conversations with teachers in Australia, the US, across the UK, and closer to home. I saw a fellow Aberdeen City teacher post on Twitter looking for others to share examples of their timetables. Recognising that I find it easier to talk things through rather than summarise in writing (an excellent quality for a blogger!), I reached out to see if she would be interested in having a Google Meet chat. We had such a great discussion, sharing lessons and resources that worked for each of us last time then ideas for how things might work over the next few weeks. I felt a bit awkward reaching out at first, but I’m so glad I did! #TenPercentBraver

Friendships over Zoom

In the previous lockdown, my family and friends had Zoom quizzes and catch ups quite a lot. Spending all day staring at a screen (including daily Google Meets with groups of 10 year olds), the thought of a few more hours on the computer (no matter how lovely it was to see family and friends) quickly lost its appeal to me. This week, I had a Zoom catch up with some university friends (meeting from Edinburgh, Newcastle, and Chicago, USA). The last time the four of us were together was when they visited me in Aberdeen in April 2019 but, talking this week, it felt like just yesterday. I think this is the best sort of friendships, the friends you know you can call up or message after months of silence and you know they’ll be excited to hear from you. I’m grateful for these friendships, this week and always.

Nature

A few years ago, I read Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin. In it, she describes the Strategy of Pairing as a way to build a new habit that will last. If you want to develop a new habit, you can only do something you enjoy at the same time as this new habit. To prevent myself from slouching at a computer for too many hours at a time and just to improve my health generally, I want to commit to going for a walk each day. I’ve set this as a target for myself many times, trying to use the Fitbit app and connecting accounts with family, or keeping a note in a diary. I’ve never managed. This time, using the Strategy of Pairing, I am only allowed to listen to a particular audiobook when I’m out for a walk. For this to work, I had to pick a book that I knew I’d quickly love. I’ve wanted to read Boys Don’t Try by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts for the longest time so decided to give it a go. (This decision was also helped by an impromptu Twitter chat with Kelly Mildenhall, a fellow Google Innovator who teaches in London, which came about after I posted about photograph on Twitter!) So far, I’m LOVING it and I cannot wait to get out for a walk each day. It’s only been a week (and the kids aren’t back yet) but I’m hopeful this strategy will work. I’m lucky to live close to a park and not too far from the beach (although it’s far too cold for that just now). I experience a different sort of connectedness on these walks as I try to be observant of what’s around me: other people’s footprints in the snow, the way the snow completely changes how things look, the sound of the river flowing in the park, the birds in the trees.

What events have sparked feelings of connectedness for you, this week?

Seven Sparks

There are many things throughout the week that I come across that I find I am inspired by so I thought I’d share them at the end of my weekly blog posts. I know Marie Kondo gets a lot of stick for talking about things “sparking joy” but, as we prepare for a house move, I find myself thinking about this a lot, so I’m going to combine this into a ‘things that have sparked joy’ section:

Blog Posts highlighted above:

I plan to publish a new post each week in 2021. Click “follow” to receive notifications when new blog posts are released or follow me on Twitter @ClareAnnePirie to connect there!

One Word for 2021

Whenever I hear / read about the concept of selecting “One Word” for the year, I can almost smell the sea air as I walked along the Aberdeen beach promenade towards the end of December 2018. I was listening to the episode of the Happier podcast where sisters, Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft, discussed how their own “One Word” for 2018 had manifested itself in their lives during the year and shared their new words for 2019. The episode really got me thinking. I was halfway through my first year in teaching. I was excited, motivated, and… stressed. I had heard about the idea of focusing on a word to help you make meaningful change in your life, but this is the first time that one particular word stood out to me – “Calm”.

Having retrained as a teacher after a previous career in finance, I really felt like I was finally doing what I was supposed to do. I loved that feeling but I think it also made it very difficult to separate my work-life from my home-life. Aside from reading, coffee catch-ups or walks with friends, and spending time with my husband, I no longer had any hobbies or outside interests. I had boxes of unopened or barely used art supplies and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t find the time, energy, or (more likely!) motivation to create! Looking back, I think the main change I made that year was joining my local Gospel choir. Despite seeing their performance at the Christmas Service, it wasn’t until August 2019 that I nervously attended my first practice. It felt good to be doing something just for me but I often struggled to leave school at a reasonable time and felt guilty that I should be marking homework or making resources instead of singing! It helped that my boss (PT/friend/digitalbuddy/cheerleader) also joined the choir – we’d often catch each other singing our latest song whilst walking through the school corridors. Being in the choir also taught me a lot about teaching, which I wasn’t expecting. The choir director not only has the most beautiful voice but she is also a primary school teacher. I joined the choir nervous and unsure. Over those first few months, she encouraged me to have more confidence in my voice and, in November 2019, I sang my first solo during evening Mass. I’ve just watched the recording back and, even now over a year later, it’s hard not to become emotional watching it. I’m visibly shaking, I was completely terrified, I stopped for breath partway through a word, but I did it! I realise that in that moment I wasn’t exactly calm, but I discovered during the year that it wasn’t just that I wanted to find moments of calm, I wanted to find moments for me.

When it came to selecting a word for 2020, I didn’t feel I’d finished with “Calm” yet. Although I was in my second year of teaching, I’d moved from P2 to P6 so everything felt brand new again. I still felt like I was constantly working and needed to be more intentional about making time for myself. I decided to keep “Calm” for a second year. 

As I reflect on 2020, I don’t really know where to begin. Nothing about this year turned out as expected, however I do think having “Calm” in the back of my mind helped. To be honest, I’ve had to look back at photos and emails to try and remember what pre-lockdown 2020 was like. I remember the confusion and the worry. I remember when we were still trying to keep to business as usual, except we split our staff room and all the cups were laid out for us. I remember when the conversations with the children after Newsround became more and more filled with anxiety. I very clearly remember Friday 20th March 2020: the last day in school before we moved to remote teaching. I remember taking the kids outside to play Rounders, they were laughing and having fun. I remember looking around our school chapel at my colleagues as we celebrated Mass together, not knowing when we’d be able to do it again. It all feels very surreal now.

I could write an entire blog post about teaching through lockdown. Instead, I’ll just recognise that it was a lot of work for everyone! With a reputation for being a bit obsessed with digital technology, I felt an underlying pressure to support my colleagues who hadn’t used technology as much in the past. Like most teachers, I ended up working longer hours than I’d ever worked before and it wasn’t sustainable. For me (and I think the kids too!), the best part of it was the daily Google Meets for games, chats, and just generally keeping connected. Welcoming kids back in person, after the summer break, was oddly emotional too. With risk assessments, lots of handwashing, and many new guidelines, there was a lot about school that was different, but there was a lot that was still the same too.

Staying in the same stage for a second year, I felt a new sense of confidence as I didn’t feel like I was completely starting from scratch. I have been able to share things with my probationer stage partner that my previous stage partner (and now close friend) showed me. Despite current restrictions, I enjoyed having a Student Teacher in my class for six weeks in term 4 as it was really rewarding to see her grow in confidence and develop her teaching practice. I attended a different virtual CPD session every weekend. I started a new practitioner enquiry looking at Whole Class Feedback. I ran book clubs, wrote blog posts, and spent far too much time on EduTwitter.

During one of my EduTwitter sessions, I learned about the Google Certified Innovator programme moving online as a result of the Coronavirus restrictions. I’d been encouraged to apply previously but didn’t think I could justify paying for the trip to a far-off city. The fact that this would be the first virtual academy, VIA20, meant that there were many more applicants as others were likely in a similar situation to me… “oh well, I probably won’t get accepted but this may be the only chance I’ll have for a while”. Encouraged by my SLT, I spent more time than I’d care to admit recording and re-recording my application video and completed the application form VERY last minute, not expecting to be successful. Whilst I was delighted to be accepted, I really had no idea how positive an impact the programme would have on me, both professionally and personally. Through weekly Design Thinking sessions and amazing Team Carnivals coaching sessions (with the inimitable Abid Patel), I started thinking differently. I have met so many inspirational educators from around the world and I’ve been inspired to try new things in my classroom and beyond. I’m so excited to continue to work on my project, Connectrio, and am already in awe of my fellow Team Carnivals pals and their projects (check out @FutureLeadEd, @IncludEduOnline, and @WhatTheTrigMath). Despite having never met in person (although two of us did manage the first IRL #VIA20 meet up!), I feel blessed to have made connections that I know will continue.

Having completed 2019/20 Education Scotland Teacher Leadership Programme, I was given the opportunity to co-present at ScotEd2020 – a virtual conference created by Darren Leslie and Fiona Leadbeater. Stephanie Peat, from Education Scotland, was invited along to present about Teacher Leadership and she asked former participants, Colin Henderson, Furzana Ahmed, and myself to join her. Despite my only playing a small part in our session, we (virtually) met a few times in the weeks prior and I gained a lot from the experience. The event took place on a Saturday so I didn’t need time out of class but I wanted to run it by SLT as I would be talking about my experiences in school. This made things feel more real and despite the event being broadcast over Youtube, I was more nervous to know that my colleagues and VIA20 buddies were watching. We waited in a virtual green room as Emma Turner finished up her session on Be More Toddler, which (along with Sarah Mullin’s session on Early Career Teaching) was exactly what I needed to hear as the nerves started to build. The relief I felt after presenting quickly became pride as I received congratulatory Whatsapp messages from my HT, DHT, PT and friends. I think that speaks to the sort of school I’m lucky enough to work in. As a result of this event, we were asked to present to HTs at an Excellence in Headship event about ways they could support their staff to Lead from the Ground Up. You can watch our ScotEd2020 session here.

There is a lot I’m proud of from 2020 and I would say I’ve gotten better at recognising moments of calm, but I don’t think I make enough of them.

So what now?

I’d say this is the first break since I started teaching that I’ve been able to switch off from work. Aside from engaging with other educators on Twitter and reading the occasional blog post, I haven’t been able to read books about education or think about next term. My brain and my body wouldn’t let me. I needed to sleep. I needed to rest. I needed to build a Lego gingerbread house and KonMari our flat. I needed to go for walks and binge-watch Boy Meets World on Disney Plus. I needed to read children’s books and autobiographies whilst drinking cup of tea after cup of tea. I have really appreciated this time and it’s got me thinking about whether any of this is also possible during term-time.

Before I was even considering my “One Word” for 2021, I was scrolling through photos on my phone to make a belated calendar for my mum and I happened upon an image featuring the word “balance”. Something about the image spoke to me and I made it my lockscreen. I had intended to keep the word “Calm” for a third year, but as we pack up our flat to move into our very first home, I think I need something more intentional to help me focus on carving out time for life, separate from work. As I read Gretchen Rubin’s blog post about choosing “One Word” for 2021, I felt myself being drawn to “Balance”. I’d like to learn to find a balance during term-time. I asked my husband what he thought and he suggested our word should be “Home”. I think they work quite well together.

Whatever 2021 throws at us, I’m going to focus on the things within my control. I’m not a fan of New Years’ Resolutions (I’ve broken them too many times in the past!) but I’m starting this year with a clearer idea of what I value. I’m going to prioritise my health, drinking more water and walking more. I’ll continue to enjoy reading with a cup of tea, but I’m going to do it more (finally signing up for a GoodReads account). I’m going to continue what I started in 2020, asking myself why I’m doing things. Does it impact the children’s learning? Is it a good use of my time? Does it really need to be done by me? I’m hopeful that having the idea of “Balance” in mind will help with this.

What’s your “One Word for 2021”? I’d love to hear more!

I plan to publish a new post each week in 2021. Click “follow” to receive notifications when new blog posts are released or follow me on Twitter @ClareAnnePirie to connect there!