Sunday, 18 January 2015

How do teachers know that they are getting things right?

Tomorrow morning we are expecting a bit of a reprieve.  Schools across Northern Ireland were filled with anxious staff members in the run up to Christmas as talk of a 7% budget school in schools was mapped out.  In many ways this was a ridiculous and excessive cut that could only have brought about negative changes.  Tomorrow morning we are expecting a bit of a reprieve but there is nothing wrong with a little thinking about how we might be able to consolidate services and think if everything that we are doing - is the right way of doing it.

Take for example the effectiveness of a particular teacher.   How does a teacher know that they are getting it right?  How do they know that they are effective? How do they know that their lessons are helping to push a Level up/ a grade up to the required level?

In Northern Ireland there is very little culture of shared experience.  Lets face it we are rubbish at sharing anything.  We always look for difference and competition between schools rather than collaboration.    Thats because we encourage schools to see themselves as businesses and not as public sector organisations designed to care for the community.

Where is our professional culture of improvement?  Where is the research to help us think about how we can improve our teaching and learning?   Where are the courses/ opportunities that deal with improvement within the classroom?  Where are the reports like from the Sutton report/ the Educational Endowment Fund/ The Joseph Rowntree foundation that challenge the traditional educational approach?

I think sometimes we are missing the point.   We need to invest more into research.  We need to send teachers to more CPD opportunities and to train them to improve their teaching.   We need to allow them to experiment.  To fail.  To see what works and what does not work.  It used to be that teachers could get across to England for some professional development.   Today, that is a lot harder as finances are so tight to allow people out, to travel and to bring back new ideas and experiences.  We need this cross-pollination again.   We need to encourage people to go and bring back their ideas.  Its not a waste of public money - it helps us to stop re-inventing the wheel time and time again in every little corner of Northern Ireland.

We need to encourage teachers to learn from each other.  To feel at ease and confident sharing their ideas with each other and then we need to support teachers as they try to do something different.

Maybe that will be addressed by the politicians tomorrow.  But I doubt it.   They want a world class education system, with top quality teachers yet they want to restrict our pay and our professional development and want to invest as little money into the system as possible.

Roll on tomorrow  . . .

Friday, 2 January 2015

The future of A Level Geography in Northern Ireland

This is something a little different  . . .

I've been teaching Geography in Northern Ireland for 20 years.  I have examined A Level geography and written a couple of books to support learners through it.

Very recently there have been a few opportunities for A Level geography teachers to discuss some of the proposed changes to A Level geography in NI from Sept 2016.   Its an interesting time and I wanted to write a short blog to see if any geography teachers would help engage in the conversation.

I am concerned a little bit by some of the feedback that geography teachers have given to the first look of the new A Level specification.

Link to the First Look of the A Level Geography Spec 
Link to the First Look of the A Level Geography Assessment Materials 

I suppose the main thing that I worried about is that I have concerns that Geography is losing its identity a little.  Do we still know exactly what Geography is?  Do we still see the clear lines between the study of Geography at school and then the links through to A level and beyond into degree level studies and into the world of work.   What do Geography graduates go on to study in the real world?   How do they use their classroom geography?   Is the study of awe and wonder, of place and process not enough anymore?   Is it still as much about pattern?

A friend noted to me the other day that the 'traditional route' for the geographer of going into the Civil Service with experience in writing reports, analysis and decision making is no longer there.   So, what should the modern geography within NI look like?  Is it enough to replicate or prepare for advancement at Tertiary education level?  What about the high numbers of students who take Geography and then go straight into the world of work?

What is the student perception of Geography?   Do students see it as an accessible subject or do they see as one which is more difficult, with bigger concepts and more difficult content that other subjects at A level?    I was surprised to hear that some students find Geography their most difficult subject.  As a teacher - this has never been my experience.   If anything Geography has consistently better grades than other subjects.   Over the last 5 years - my students have got more grades A and B than any other academic subject (in what would be classed a comprehensive school).   Students were definitely getting better grades than the Sciences and Maths.   But, is this universal?

Geographers, geography teachers - I need your help with this conversation - what do you think?  Does six exam papers instead of four put students off?   Do you agree with the proposals? -  should Geography be going a different direction? - should geography be going back to the future? - is it ok to go back to look at things like Glaciers when we have not really studied these for 20 years in NI geography circles - is this progression or regression?

What are your ideas about where Geography as a subject should be going?  Should we be jumping on board the STEM/ STEAM agenda?   Do we need to clearly define career pathways that lead to geo-centric qualifications?   Does this mean we need to build in more GIS?  More 'hands on' development?  More renewables technology?

Let me know what you think by replying to the blog// joining the conversation on twitter or email me at 



Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Reflections on the musical year of 2014


I noted last year that the way that I access music, listen to music and purchase music was changing and this has definitely continued to be the case through 2014.  I have streamed more music than every before and also been a little more reflective on my musical history than at any other point.   I have listened to more of the stuff that I grew up listening to than any other year - I dusted down the old Simple Minds, Deacon Blue, Queen. Dire Straits, Genesis CDs amongst many, many more.   I found myself listening to Spotify more than anything else and amidst all of the bizarre ads for natural gas, I have listened to a wide and often strange mix of music.   I suppose it has helped me avoid making some bad buying decisions.   Though, I still like to buy my own copies of the music so that I can put them onto my iPod for the car and my iPad for work.  

So what has made the Top 10 this year  . . . . .

10 Pilot Me by Josh Garrels & Mason Jar Music (from the Album The Sea in-between Soundtrack) 
I have got into a lot of Josh Garrells music this year and some of the offerings he has put together with Mason Jar Music in this little album are a great listen.   His more mainstream album Love & War & there sea in between is probably a cleaner sound but I love some of the arrangements in this album.   (little Blue and slip away are great songs as well!!) 

9 I see fire by Ed Sheeran (from the The Hobbit soundtrack) 
I'm not a huge Ed Sheeran fan I have to say though there is no doubt that he has had a great year with X.   This is my favourite track that he has produced - I see fire.  Its from the second (and best ) of the three Hobbit films.   

8 It's Alright Now by Bombay Bicycle Club (from the Album So Long, See You Tomorrow) 
I love this whole album but for me this song epitomises the album.   Its a fast paced and energetic song that draws you in and makes you want to learn more.   

7  Birds of the High Arctic by David Gray (from the Album Mutineers) 
I have always like David Gray.  Oddly, I bought the album before I had a chance to listen through to it on Spotify and when I did on first listen I was not that impressed.  But, the album was a real grower and this song stood out amongst the others.  I love the classical influences of the string section underneath the main melody.  

6  Oceans (Where feet may fall) by Hillsong United (from the Album Zion) 
I originally used this song in a little movie that I was making for church and the more that I listened to this the more I liked it and the play count went through the roof.  Its such a relaxed song with a great message.  It builds and flows in the way that well constructed song should and has the impact that people who heard it once were asking me what the name of the song was! 

5 Left Hand Free by Alt-J  (from the Album This is All Yours) 
This is the first entry on my list that I only listen to on Spotify.   I discovered Alt-J by accident this year and whilst I purchased An Awesome Wave (2012), I have not got round to buying this album yet.  The vocals are a little bizarre at times but the music makes up for it with a driving bass beat and drum in the background.   Its a song with a bit of occasion to it.  Though I have to admit that my fav song is an older one called Tesselate.  

4 Raised by Wolves by U2 (from the Album Songs of Innocence) 
I struggled a little with the new U2 album this year.   They got so much bad press from their free giveaway of their new album.   I certainly wasn't complaining.   The album is not really as good as some of the recent offerings from U2 but they are all getting on a bit, don't forget.   For me this song helps to bring back to light a little of the old U2 - driving drum beats and catchy chorus line.  Its a song with a message, its a song with passion and will the odd haunting Edge backing vocal.   

3  Electric Man by Rival Sons (from the Album Great Western Valkyrie) 
This is a band that I discovered by accident on Spotify but very quickly downloaded a lot of their material into iTunes.  I even hooked up with them on twitter - I mentioned one day that I was listening to one of their tracks and enjoying it and the band re-tweeted me!  Whats not to love about that!   I love the heavy rock guitar driving the song though I could as easily have gone for the song Open My Eyes as well here! 

2 Radioactive by Imagine Dragons  (from the Album Night Visions) 
This was definitely the album of the year in the Manson house this year.  We played this album a lot over the summer and beyond.  As we pulled our caravan through Scotland and England this was a favourite.   Each of us has a slightly different favourite song on the album but this is mine.   To be honest  - I could have listed any of the other songs quite easily - On top of the world/ demons / Its time  - there are a lot of very good songs on this album  . . . 

1 Magic by Coldplay (from he Album Ghost Stories) 
Opinion was divided about this particular Coldplay album but this is easily my most listened to album of the year.   So much so that I even downloaded it onto a CD so that I could listen to it in the car and in the caravan.   Its so chilled and atmospheric.   I could easily have chosen another of the songs on the album to be at number one - Always in my head, Midnight, Another's arms, Oceans or a sky full of stars.   This is a great album from a great band on great form.  Probably my favourite Coldplay album of all time and that's high praise! 

What nearly made it? 
I want to like Kodaline more that I actually do.   I know its probably trendy to like them a lot but their album In a Perfect World is definitely a good album and One Day is a good track but it is not quite good enough to get into my final top ten.   
I've always liked a little bit of David Ford and his The Arrangement EP was a good one with a song called This will all count for Nothing that I really liked.  
My daughter's cello teacher - Scott Heron is in the Lisaire String Quartet and they have an album called Ode to Sting - which is lots of Sting songs put into nice string arrangements - its a great album to have on the background when you need to get some thinking done! 
Finally, the new Rend Collective Album The Art of Celebration is a great worship album that I have enjoyed listening to this year and their Christmas Campfire album was worth downloading as well 

What disappointed?  
Elbow produced my favourite song of all time in One Day like this so it is really difficult for them to get me back to this heights.   As much as I have tried - I really struggle to like their most recent album - The Take off and Landing of everything - its just not as good as they are capable of.  I know they can do better and other than the title track for the album - it just it not that memorable.   
Jamie Callum presented Momentum this year and I have to say that I was underwhelmed by this album as well.   Usually I am a big fan but it was just a little safe and boring for me.   

I might even make a wee playlist of these on Spotify  . . . . .  

Happy New year! 

What kind of day has it been?

A few nights ago I watched the very last 'Newsroom' TV dramas and was struck by the name of the episode - 'What kind of day has it been?' Followers of Aaron Sorkin will realise that from Sports Night, to Sunset 60, to the West Wing and then to Newsroom - Sorkin has used this question to reflect and bring an end to a season.

Its been an interesting year, 2014.   It started with my appointment to a new job at Cullybackey College.  The transition took its toll on me on ways that I never expected.   I never expected saying goodbye to the people of Slemish to be so difficult - thought after 17 years I have no idea why I ever thought that!  Leaving Slemish was hard.  But moving to Cullybackey and settling in quickly to the rhythm of the school was made easier by the great people who are there.   I still enjoy my drive to work every morning and enjoy the opportunity to build and shape a school that is reinventing itself and pushing students towards improvement.   I've enjoyed getting to know a host of new people and have started to make a few wee changes of my own  . . . .

My most precious commodity through 2014 has been time.   It has not always been easy to juggle all of the different commitments that I have.  In many ways I feel like I have been playing catch up in most of the things that I do.  Maybe 2015 is an opportunity to invest more time into the things that I want to.  Maybe I need to re-prioritise a few things and make sure that I am spending time doing the right things.   Family/ Friends need to come first.  A young man that I have known for over 20 years died suddenly a few days ago and his death reminded me that I need to make sure that I am using up my valuable time on the right things and on the right people.   Its time for a spot of re-investment over the next weeks and months  . . .

My favourite catchphrase is 'What's next' and in all the Sorkin-esque dramas the question about what kind of day has it been usually lets the loose threads hang so that you can see what is about to happen in the future.   The future and what happens next has always fascinated me.  There is no point in worrying about tomorrow may bring - deal with things as they arrive.  I'm sure that 2015 is going to be another year filled with excitement and opportunity.  There is a lot still to do in my work, my wider family is growing and I look forward to watching our family times together get more special.   I have a new book coming out soon in the Spring and have a few other smaller writing projects that I am working on scattered through the year.

So what does 2015 hold - there are a few exciting things on the horizon - I am taking my family on a special holiday of a lifetime to Iceland - something that my two kids have been on at me about for years now.  Its time to explore.  Time to enjoy nature and take risks.   There is a lot of deadlines and busy work that needs a doing but this year, more than any other year maybe, I am determined to enjoy the ride and the people who are sharing the moments with me  . . . .

What kind of day has it been?  A pretty good one  . . . and I can't wait for tomorrow.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Leadership can be lonely

Its been a while since I've had any time to be able to upload some of my thinking onto this site.  I moved jobs at Easter and have spent the last few months getting used to the ways and mechanisms of a new school.  Its been fun.  Its been busy.  Its been a steep learning curve.  Its been a real privilege to get to know some new students and teachers.

But, leadership can be lonely.   I'm used to being part of the craic.  I am used to being the person cracking the jokes and making people laugh.   Its odd losing that role (to some extent!)  Colleagues don't call me by first name anymore.  It is very weird to get used to that.  To my students I have always been Mr Manson and to my colleagues its Tim.  Now, everyone calls me Mr Manson.

I suppose the biggest difference is how quickly people expect me to make decisions and fix things.  You have to change gear fast  - from a pastoral issue to a question about timetabling to a question about risk assessment.   Teachers and kids both want instant answers.  Not great, when I like to mull and think . . .

I am so fortunate to have moved to a school that I already love and enjoy working in and everyone is lovely but you still feel a little different, a little bit of an outsider.  Something that I guess you have to get used to . . . .

 . . . or do you?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Leadership via the West Wing

I don't really watch a lot of TV.  But, when I do I can get very absorbed into the way that shows work and portray different situations.   When the West Wing came out a few years ago I was a BIG fan.  I used to love watching it and talking about it and then waiting for the box set so I could watch them all again.   I really don't know how many times I have watched the series through from one end to the other.   I think the last time my wife and I did this - the kids were very little.

The weird thing is and the testament to the way the show was made, is that we have been watching the West Wing again with our kids and they love it as much as we do!  We have been steadily working our way through the box sets for about 6 months now (and we have just started series 6)  and it has been very interesting to watch their reaction to the show.  My 12 year old daughter just loves it and she likes to identify with the strong female lead roles.  Josh has always been my favourite.  Loyal, energetic and sometimes misguided - he is often the voice of optimism to counter the grumbling pessimism of Toby.

I remember back many years ago when this first came out and together with some colleagues we used to compare the leadership attributes of the West Wing characters compared with what happens in a typical school.  Who would be the grumpy Toby?  The organised and efficient but firm Leo etc.   There 's still a lot of learning in the West Wing and I'm glad to be able to share it with my kids!  

and its a goodbye from me . . .

The dust has finally settled  . . . the boxes have all been packed up and are ready to be transported to the  'new place' - just as soon as they finish doing up my office.

In my last post I talked about some of the challenges that I thought I was going to face.   No one really prepared me for the emotional and psychological roller coaster that leaving Slemish college was.   I want to spend most of this post saying thank you to the students, staff members, colleagues, friends and parents who made my last few weeks in Slemish so memorable.  It truly was difficult to leave.  17 years  is a long time - but I felt that the timing was right both for me and for the school.

I have to admit that the last few weeks have been some of the busiest of my life - I am used to working long hours but over the last few weeks I have been working late nearly every night to make sure that I am leaving things the way that I want.   I have pushed through my teaching so that I completed the courses for my Year 12, 13 and 14 classes.  They are ready for their exams (which is just as well as they are kicking off in about 2 weeks), I wanted to leave them with full confidence that they were ready to face these exams!  I have been making sure that all the coursework/ controlled assessment and portfolio pieces that I am involved in marking are ready (and in fact I spent most of today working on these).  Add to that the gradual dismantlement of my room and office - and making sure that the right people had the right information to continue on when I went  . . . .

It has been hard to say goodbye.  My students have been great - I was totally caked out and surprised by lovely presents - ties, sweets, pictures and prob my favourite is the flying lesson that my year 13 and 14 students got for me. Its been emotional.  Its been hard sometimes.  As students have tried to steal a quiet word to say thank you or to leave a wee pressie and a card on my desk without anyone else seeing.

I have the cards all round the house.  Its nice to have been appreciated and to have people tell me that I will be missed and that I will be hard to replace.  In many ways it has reminded me that its sometimes too late to do that when people are going - but its something I want to try to remember in the future and to make sure that I can help to appreciate people in the here and now and not wait for them to go.  I like reading the wee messages that people sent me and I wrote a few as well and I hope they helped.  I'm not someone who likes people to see the 'real' emotional me.  Its not the type of attention that I usually like and certainly my heart was filled with dread about the traditional Slemish leaving ritual where there was a party in the staffroom with a speech from Paul (the Principal) and from my buddy Mike (the VP) and then from me.   Both Mike and Paul were lovely in their words as they recalled some of my exploits in the school.   I can;t quite remember what I said but hopefully it struck a chord.

I loved working at Slemish College.   I always say that my finger prints are all over the school.  But, my mind and my heart is starting to turn towards the challenge that greets me at the start of next week.  I move to Cullybackey College - and I am excited and looking forward to getting to know some new people - new colleagues, new students and a new community.   I hope that I can continue to help make a difference in the lives of the people that I come into contact with and help them find their identity and fulfilment.  I'm nervous but so far everyone I have met has been lovely, supportive and excited too.   So, its a big step and I look forward to see what happens next  . . . . . . I might let you know  . . . .