ACT - The Association of Christian Teachers

for Christians working in education

Advice Line

Question

I start my NQ year in a maintained school in September and I am, of course, looking forward to it.  I stated on the application form that I am a practising Christian involved in youth work.  The only thing picked up at my interview was the concern that church youth work might prove to be a distraction during the demands of my first year.  I want to be clear about my Christianity from the start.  How can I do this best?

Advice

Before all else, can I say that you are very wise to be thinking about this before the event.  Many people don’t have the same foresight, and that can lead to difficulties later on.

The finest way to be a credible witness for Jesus Christ in your school is to be a good learner and a good teacher, and this comes with time and effort.  I have known some Christians in education, who, frankly, present an unlovely view of the faith.  And this sometimes happens because they separate their faith life from their work life:  Mr Nice Guy on Sunday,  Mr Nasty on Monday.

At the risk of sounding patronising, I offer some ways to establish a good foundation in your life’s work .  Firstly, remember the three pillars of health: diet, exercise and sleep.  Then, remember the three pillars of a strong and nourishing spiritual life: prayer, Bible reading and fellowship.  Ignore them, and your wellbeing may come crashing down.

There will be a lot that you don’t know, and more challenging still are the things that you don’t know that you don’t know.  This is why relationships with colleagues are so important, and need establishing early on.  You will have a line manager who may also be your headteacher, and also a mentor appointed to lead and guide you through the first year.  But consider others, both teachers and support staff, who can help.  Make an effort to remember colleagues’ names and unless your memory is measured in gigabytes, I suggest that you keep a note book handy.  Never be afraid to ask for help from experienced colleagues – you’ll quickly sort out the best ones to ask.  Now, this is very important: if things get tough or complicated you might be tempted to keep your head down and solve problems yourself.  Resist that at all costs, and reach out for help.  Consider colleagues, family and Christians in education in your church.  Remember that ACT offers to members a confidential advice service on professional matters.

Your local authority will most likely offer an induction programme for new staff.  Find out about it and make sure you go!

If you are open about your Christianity you will soon find any other Christians on the staff.  Consider joining a prayer group of colleagues, if there is one, and starting one if there is not.  Keep your home group informed of the needs on your frontline.  You are starting out on a big adventure.  Take God into the classroom with you.

If you want to learn and understand more about the mechanics of teaching for Christians, how to keep your work and faith together, and exactly how knowing Jesus makes a difference, start by exploring http://www.whatiflearning.co.uk/ and spend some quality time with  http://www.johnshortt.org/Pages/default.aspx.

Bon Voyage.

Robert Hall    1st August 2014

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Question

My headteacher is a systems woman. At every senior management team meeting she comes up with a procedure to record something which, she says, will make us more Ofsted ready. For those of us who have to balance leadership with a significant teaching timetable, this just wears us down. The whole school is creaking under the weight of its protocols. She justifies this on the grounds of continuous improvement. Am I right to protest?

Answer

This problem is fairly endemic. Staff are concerned to have a policy and a system and an audit trail for everything, and, given the nature of our inspection regime, you can well understand why. However, policies and procedures can siphon off the energy of creative teachers. Remember the old adage, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’.

Systems are important and necessary and can be useful. What matters is that they do the job efficiently, without distracting you from the main thing, which is teaching and learning, which can be defined as quality engagement between teacher and pupil. And you can't do that whilst you are tinkering with systems.

In my professional life I have often had to look at school procedures. Complexity and efficacy are not always linked. Simple systems often work best. It’s important to look at the efficiency of any system and seek to simplify it, and complexity not only wastes valuable teaching time, but increases the likelihood of non-compliance. One school decided to computerise its diary, using the school network. Chaos reigned. Some staff didn’t have access to the system, others thought it too cumbersome and devised their own system. In the end, the school abandoned the high-tech approach, and reverted to the diary and pencil method.

Ofsted inspectors and other ‘auditors’ will be more impressed with a system that works than with the use of the latest technology. Remember that even pencils were a new technology in the sixteenth century.

Are you right to protest? Your analysis of the problem may well be spot on. How you tackle it is another matter. Actual Ofsted and fear of Ofsted are two different things, and it takes a cool head to know the difference. ‘Cool head’ can be understood in two ways; perhaps both apply here. In an ideal world a school will plan to achieve compliance with the demands of external agencies, then light-touch monitoring is all that’s needed to maintain things. Sadly, most administrations suffer an unending series of highly contagious panic attacks. Heads attend conferences, which are often marketed by suggesting that attendance will ensure a good Ofsted inspection.  Heads get back to school to implement a new procedure or expensive proprietary software, sold on the basis that ‘this will solve all your problems’. It ain’t necessarily so.

I suggest that you propose a working party to look at all procedures to ensure that they are fit for purpose. This will involve asking the questions:

1. Does it work?

2. Does the procedure actually meet the need for which it was intended?

3. Does the need still exist?

4. Are there any faults with the system?

5. Can it be improved?

6. How can the system be less burdensome to staff, especially pupil-facing staff?

Finally, continuous improvement doesn’t always mean building on extensions. It could mean demolishing a few monstrous carbuncles. Now that is improvement!

Robert Hall  27th June 2014

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Question

I’ve just gone through the gruelling month of job applications and an interview. I feel exhausted by the whole process and I am devastated that they didn’t offer me the job. I feel rejected and unwanted. Any suggestions?

Answer

I can quite understand how you feel because you have probably spent many hours writing the application, perhaps digging out your personal details, devising a presentation and revising your knowledge of the subject. It’s necessary to put your heart and soul into the process.
Unfortunately, applying for a job is a bit like any competitive game, in which not everyone can win, in fact in job interviews generally speaking only one can win. Also, the dynamics of the interview process are difficult to predict. Many studies about this ‘least bad of all the ways in which to select people’ show very little consistency. The only factor which seems consistently to influence choice of candidate is physical attractiveness.
You might console yourself with this thought: that to get the job might have meant disaster. Amongst the many anecdotes which I have come across, one of my own may be helpful.
Us candidates were asked to sit and wait in the staffroom, which we dutifully did. Presently in walked a member of staff who evidently had applied for the job. In a conversation with a colleague designed to be overheard by all, she proceeded to vent her anger at not being called for interview and made it clear that she and her friends would make life very difficult for the successful candidate. Later we were given a tour of the school which seemed to have been the product of a dysfunctional relationship between an architect and pedagogic innovator. There were no walls between classrooms and although the staff had done their best to create distinct spaces for their classes, every sound could be heard everywhere. It was impossible to get the focussed attention of pupils in a story telling session whilst another group watched a television programme and yet another was having a spelling test. I was glad not to get the job.
Back to your feeling of rejection. The wisest advice that I can give you is to keep close to God. Since God never makes mistakes and is the best manager and counsellor you’ll ever have, a lively, dynamic, vigorous prayer life will be the best medicine and tonic at times like these. Get others involved; family and church family. And remember that when things don’t go according to you plan, God’s love for you is undiminished. He still sees you as valuable – so you are. For now, refocus on your current role and devise an improvement plan for the place where you are.
Among the things you can do to improve your chances in job interviews are: (1) getting a respected friend to read over your application letter, (2) arrange for someone to give you a practice interview and give helpful feedback. (3) ACT members are always welcome to contact the ACT helpline 0121 364 0808 for a confidential conversation. However, my best advice is in the penultimate paragraph above.

Robert Hall 22nd May 2014

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Question

One of the teacher unions is proposing to take strike action. I am not a member of a union but there is much highly emotive talk in the staffroom, including conflict between the different unions. We all get on reasonable well as a staff in normal circumstances. I want to be as harmless as a dove in this situation. Can you advise me how I can pick my way carefully through this minefield?

Answer

You are wise to seek counsel here, as you can easily offend any party even though you seek to be harmless.  I wonder why you are not a member of a trade union. It may be on philosophical grounds, in which case that’s fine. If you resent the expenditure, remember that you can claim nine-tenths of your membership fee against your income tax.

ACT recommends that Christians in education belong to a trade union simply because of the strong legal backing provided in the event of difficult. On occasions I have received requests for help from ACT members where I would advise them to involve their union, but they are not members. Even if you join now, and you can do this online, any time. However, unions will, quite understandably, not accept pre-existing problems.
in the event of a planned strike you need to make it clear to your line manager that you are not a member of a trade union and that you will not be taking industrial action. You must ask for instructions about reporting for work and make it clear that you are available for work.
If you are asked to cover for striking colleagues, I advise you to decline. You should not be asked to do anything outside your normal line of duties, which could be deemed unreasonable. Defining what is reasonable is sometimes a difficult business, but in my view the only reason for agreeing to abnormal work would be in an emergency.
Sometimes headteachers will appeal to a member’s emotional side and talk about the safety and welfare of pupils, the importance of continuity – especially if examinations are in the offing. You must remember that these matters are the responsibility of the headteacher and are not yours to bear.
In some cases there will be a picket line at the school entrance. This may cause you a real difficulty, especially in terms of long-term relationships with colleagues. If you are not striking, to refuse to cross a picket line becomes a disciplinary offence, unless you feel that your health and safety is in danger.
At all times keep your line manager informed of any steps you take, or don’t take, and say why. Try to be clear and honest with all sides. It’s the best way to be as harmless as a dove.
ACT members are reminded that they can ring the ACT confidential helpline 0121 364 0808 to talk over issues of this kind. ACT is not a trade union and cannot normally act on your behalf. However, we offer a sympathetic ear and collective years of experience.

Robert Hall  21st March 2014

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Question

I am finding our SLT meetings very frustrating.  I am the youngest member of the team and have a lot to offer.  Every time I suggest a solution to a problem, someone immediately pours cold water on it.  It’s very demoralising.  I would have thought every idea is worth consideration, at least.  Some people seem to like the problems but not the solutions!  I can’t see a way forward.  Can you suggest anything?

Answer

There is a traditional belief that the older you are, the wiser you are.  It is just as untrue as the converse: the younger you are, the better your ideas.  The reality is that we all, young or old, have something to offer, and a good manager will seek to bring out the best in everyone. 

You are right that some people are more comfortable with problems than solutions.  It’s easy to moan because nothing needs to change.  Change, on the other hand, is difficult to implement – even if it’s for the better.

I wonder if we have a presentational problem here?  You need to know how and when to suggest your ideas.  Maybe, let the rest of the team mull over the problem.  It is, after all, your corporate responsibility to examine the issue thoroughly to identify the real problem.  One way of doing this is to ask, ‘Why?’ 

‘Why’ is a very powerful question which defeated the all-powerful computer in the iconic 1960s television series ‘The Prisoner’.  Some have equated this with David’s single shot defeating Goliath.  Only when you have established the answer to the question ‘Why?’ can you look for the solution.  You need to know when to suggest it.  Some people might always seek to put you down.  In this case you could discuss your ideas with other members of the team prior to the meeting, and get them to suggest your idea.

Be patient with your colleagues.  Be positive with them, and try to discern where they are coming from, just as you do with your pupils..  Ask your Father God for Holy Spirit insight and wisdom and the sensitivity to know when to speak and when to be silent. Ecclesiastes3.7b  Be more relaxed in these meetings and seek God’s perfect leading.  He is good at leading.  All you need to do is follow.  

Robert Hall  March 2014

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Question

I work in an "excellent" secondary school and the headeacher's pursuit of higher standards of teaching is unremitting.  This means that I get lesson observations, not only from my head of department, but also the senior management team and a jumble of consultants who are employed to maintain the pressure.  In a sense I can understand all this except for the fact that I am getting three sets of often conflicting advice.  I get slated for one observation, praised in the next, and I am very confused.  What's going on?

Answer

You ask what's going on, so we need to look at all the players in this game.

Firstly, let's look at yourself.  You must be able to distinguish yourself from the professional functionary you have perhaps become.  Your true identity is linked to that of your Saviour and others whom you love.  God's love for us is utterly unchangeable whatever the storms of life throw at us.  The requirements of your employer will, however, change and the trick is to be able to sing a new song but stay the same singer.  Certainly, your pupils will require continuity and consistency of treatment; learning is still learning and teaching is still teaching.  Do not abandon your past experience.  Believe in your ability yet always seek to improve.  Remember that you are best placed to know how your pupils learn.  This snippet from Rudyard Kipling's stoical poem "If ..." paints a helpful picture: 'If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...'

Secondly let's look at your school colleagues who have been observing you.  They will inevitably bring their own range of experiences and their own specific strengths as a lens through which they will view your situation...  Maybe they have baggage?  Maybe they have an agenda other than your development?

You owe it to yourself to ensure that you have a good grasp of the current Ofsted framework and what they are looking for.  There are plenty of books around; for example:  'The Perfect Ofsted Lesson' by Jackie Beere which will give you an insight into what's on an Ofsted inspector's tick list at the moment.

Any lesson observation should have these characteristics:

  1. The scope of the observation and criteria for success is known in advance.  You need to know what will be looked at.
  2. Any links to performance management should be clearly understood by both sides beforehand.  Seek close unity of understanding with your appraiser.
  3. Quality time must be allocated for feedback.  At the end of the feedback you need to be clear what you have to do to further improve.

Thirdly, let's consider Ofsted itself.  I think it's safe to say that not everybody considers that it exists solely for the support of the teaching profession.  In its twenty years, the Ofsted framework, or 'rules of engagement' as I like to call them, has changed a number of times.  Ofsted's framework is like a child's creation made of Lego: not always immediately recognisable as something coherent and easily dismantled and quickly re-erected in another form.  This causes confusion as the professionals in a school can be singing from different hymn sheets.  It also gives a 'bandwagon' effect.  In my time, I have seen many such wagons rolling into town with banners like literacy, differentiation, ict and assessment for learning.

Try to have all these things in your mind, but it would be folly indeed to attempt to address all these things all of the time.  There are two things about which you should be ready to give a swift explanation to an Ofsted inspector.  One is that you know where each child is in terms of progress relative to what's expected, and the other is being able to narrate any child's learning story or pathway, identifying obstacles and opportunities along the way.  This will show that you are truly engaged with your pupils' development.

And one last thing, which I learned early on from an unwise deputy who, wanting to impress the inspector, tried something new and innovative.  The children didn't take to it, and failed to perform.  Simply show that your lesson is part of a long-term strategy.  You can demonstrate this by recapping on the previous lesson and explaining what you'll be doing in the next.

To attempt to please all of the people all of the time is unwise.  Believe in your God-given ability, keep in dialogue with observers about what they are looking for, and don't lose sight of what you are there for – the development and wellbeing of your pupils.

Robert Hall  February 2014

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Question

My daughter is involved in a national singing competition.  She has special needs and has overcome many hurdles in her life.  This is a huge blessing for her, and when her  group won a regional heat we heard that she will be singing in a London theatre in front of MPs and celebrities.  I have asked for the day off to accompany her, but my school has said ‘no’.  Is there anything I can I do?

Advice

This is a common problem when family and school commitments coincide.  Teaching is one of those jobs where there is little flexibility.  It’s part of the deal:  you have to be there when the children are there.  You should look at your school policy on leave of absence for staff, as school policies vary, but don’t be too hopeful.  In the past I have negotiated local authority agreements where the stipulations were very tight.  You could attend your grandmother’s funeral, but not that of your cousin.  Most policies will have a clause which gives the headteacher some discretion, and this is where you might have an opportunity.

As I have said before in this column, it pays to be on good professional terms with your headteacher.  She or he will be more likely to allow you time off if you are a conscientious, hard working, punctual member of staff who had a good attendance record.  Understandably, headteachers want to keep their staff working consistently with their pupils to maximise the chances of good grades upon which the school is judged.  Staff absence is almost always unsettling for pupils. 

Assuming good professional terms, why not write a letter to your headteacher laying out the reasons for your request and the importance of the event to your family?  You need to acknowledge in your letter that you probably do not have a right to the time off, so you are seeking a gracious response.  And if it’s refused?  I know of someone who ‘went sick’ during the day for which time off was refused, but the consequences were very undesirable.  Whilst visiting a personnel office once, the staff had been trawling through the records and found that an employee went off sick during the same week each year.  He faced a decidedly uncomfortable return-to-work interview.

If all else fails you will have to disappoint your daughter, and although that may be very hard for her to bear, she may have learned a hard lesson, that Mum isn’t always available, and that work commitments are not optional.  I hope that your church family, for example your house group, will be holding this matter in prayer.  I pray that you may be able to find someone else to act in loco parentis for the day in question.

Robert Hall January 2014

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Question

As far as I know I am the only Christian working in this secondary school.  Leadership is such that there are a number of cliques formed around powerful senior managers.  People who try and abide by moral principles are scorned by the majority. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and the ethos extends to the pupils.  I just feel that I am in a hopelessly alien environment.  I am strongly tempted to move to another school.  Can you advise me?

Advice

On the matter of you moving to another school I cannot advise you, but ask God to guide you and he will.  The only problem is that whatever he says, you might not want to hear.

I can well imagine the unpleasantness of life in a school like you describe.  You sound like one of God’s people in captivity in Babylon, an oppressive alien culture.  Those sad captives got a letter from Jeremiah the prophet which said some surprising things.  (Jeremiah 29)  In it God reminds them that he allowed them to be carried away. 29.4  Then he tells them to settle in that alien environment and intimates that they will be there quite a while; explicitly he instructs them to build and plant and marry.

Moreover, God directs them to pray for their captors, and establish a modus vivendi, to live at peace.  Matthew Henry says, “Meek and quiet people, that work and mind their own business, have often found much better treatment, even with strangers and enemies, than they expected.”  Furthermore, God urges them to seek the good of that alien land and even promote it.

This is probably not what you wanted to hear, but, in brief, you have been put there for a reason.  You may be the only person praying for that school, its leaders and learners.  What a huge responsibility and privilege!

May I suggest a survival plan?  Firstly, accept your situation for what it is.  Change is going to be hard.  Don’t get carried away by superficial, non-factual optimism.  You need to exercise faith in God’s capacity for restoration, faith in God’s tomorrow.

Secondly, maintain a solid prayer life.  Be assured of God’s power in your life and be specific in your praying.  Pray for those in leadership whether they be doves or serpents.  Make a step-change in your praying by praying with others: fellow Christians in your church, for example.  ACT has a group of confidential prayer warriors who receive monthly matters for prayer.  We can let them know your prayer requests.  Does your pastor / minister pray for you?  Let him or her know your needs.

Thirdly, pray for a fellow Christian to come onto the staff or governing body.  You never know, there may be one already.  I prayed like that in one organisation I worked for, and God answered very promptly.  Then the two of you can get together for prayer.

Fourthly, seek places of influence – maybe committees or development projects.  Make sure you are part of the improvement.  Like Matthew Henry says, “Every passenger is concerned in the safety of the ship.”

Fifthly, make sure your work is well regarded.  Be conscientious, develop a reputation of honesty and non partisanship.  You can waste much of a lifetime in low-level political (small p) conflict.

This plan has the aim of turning you from a refugee into a resident.  So often in the profession we simply have to be salt and light in otherwise tasteless and dark places.

Unless you are particularly single-minded and strong-willed, you will need support through this.  Look around for someone who can share the journey with you.  ACT members are reminded that they can access confidential telephone support from experienced and senior members of ACT.  In the first instance, ring 0121 364 0808 and be prepared to leave your name and a contact telephone number.

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Question

I started my career as newly qualified in September this year.  Things are going reasonably well but a few issues are beginning to emerge.  It appears that some things might be starting to unravel.   Please can you help reassure me about whether or not I am doing the right thing?

Advice

You are not alone.  In many local authorities newly qualified teachers make up ten percent of the workforce.  Numerous newly qualified folk find their first [induction] year a confused roller coaster of imagined success and failure.  Here are some salient points which every newly qualified teacher needs to appreciate.  For further details, read the fuller ‘Avuncular advice to newly qualified teachers’.

If you are finding the year stressful, confusing, chastening and exhausting, then know that most beginners find it the same.  If you feel that others around you are managing the job with aplomb, then remember that they have learned over the years. 

Keep your family and social life on an even keel during this year, even if it means delaying things for a while.  To bring your professional life to God in prayer daily – specific prayer about the practical situations you face – is crucial.  And get others to pray for and with you, too.

In normal circumstances, it will take three terms to complete your induction year, and they can be taken in different schools at difference times.  Part-time teachers will take longer, on a pro rata basis.   There will be assessment points at the end of each third, normally each term. 

If an NQT fails their induction year they are effectively barred from becoming a qualified teacher.  If you think that failure is possible, it’s often best to avoid failing.  If this sounds idiosyncratic, then seek clarification

As an NQ teacher you must receive twenty percent of the timetable as non-contact time.  This is to enable you to get ahead with planning, preparation, marking, assessment and a little professional reflection.  This could be one whole day a week, or more likely, in two or more parts.  Avoid others impinging on your time.  Schools are full of distractions. 

You must have an induction tutor with QTS, who must be trained and have time available to support you.  Your tutor must have, themselves, ‘a deep understanding of teaching and learning’, and be able to coach you through the wider aspects of the job, including classroom organisation, your approach to your pupils, prioritising your time, dealing with colleagues and parents etc. 

You must be observed teaching at least six times during your NQ year, and one of these must be done by the headteacher.  Observations are just part of a support package – you must expect practical support and guidance from your induction tutor and others

You should not be given abnormally difficult classes, or take on additional responsibilities, during your first year.  You may be keen to explore the wider aspects of school life but in your first year it’s important to focus on establishing good teaching and learning and making it sustainable.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if the support you receive is not what you hoped for.

Be reflective of your practice, and enlist the help and support of as many around you as you can.  Keep a development portfolio which charts the learning points, records meetings, lesson plans and observations, together with the feedback.   Making notes of what is said to you at meetings is an excellent discipline. 

Be aware that year two and subsequent years will also be learning opportunities.  You have opted for a profession which is undergoing a significant amount of change.  Keep learning, keep experimenting, learn from experience and keep your development portfolio going.  n

*  Members of ACT can contact the confidential helpline  0121 364 0808  for support.  Be prepared to leave your name and a contact number.

Robert Hall    October 2013

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Question

Yesterday morning the deputy head asked me to attend a meeting after school with the headteacher.  I asked, “Why” and his reply was a bit vague.  Something about talking over a number of important issues and being in line with school policy in terms of professionalism.  Although I didn’t understand any of this, I agreed to attend.

When I arrived at the meeting after a full working day in the classroom, the atmosphere was decidedly frosty.  The language was the same as the morning, and it was all such a shock and surprise, because, as far as I knew, there were no issues with my professional practice.  It seemed to me that the bottom was falling out of my world, and I found it very distressing.  I don’t cry easily, but I felt I might, so I excused myself and left the room.  What should I do? 

Advice

This is, sadly, not an uncommon experience.  Teachers put all their attention into their work with pupils, sometimes with scant regard to their professional safety.  They find themselves in an antagonistic professional situation without knowing the agenda.  You were quite right to excuse yourself from the meeting.

In a former life, when representing members of a teacher trade union, I would often ask, “Why am I here?” or “What is the status of this meeting?”   Bland assurances that a meeting was informal and off the record could quite easily become formal and on the record.  Sometimes is was the slip road to dismissal.

If you are of a robust constitution you should enquire beforehand the nature of the meeting and what the concerns are.  This will give you time to consider your response.  If you are less than robust, contact your trade union rep within school or, within your local authority, or if not appropriate, contact your union’s regional or national office for support.  They will do the asking on your behalf.

Try to establish a good rapport with your union representative.  Be honest with them.  Listen to their suggestions.  They will know the processes and procedures.

You do not have the right to have a representative accompany you to informal meetings, although you can always ask.  A good head will often allow this.  If not, take the meeting slowly, make notes and ask for clarification at any point you do not understand.  Do not be rushed, and do not be afraid to ask absolutely anything.  Your professional reputation needs protecting.

One last thing.  Don’t ignore problems of this kind.  Seek advice immediately.  Talk to respected colleagues.  Talk to your heavenly father.  A problem shared …   ACT members are reminded that they can ring for confidential support from ACT.  ACT is not a trade union and cannot represent you at meetings.  However, most people find that just talking it through can be hugely helpful.  ACT help line 0121 346 0808  If I don’t answer, leave your name and a contact number.

Robert Hall  September 2013

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Question

I feel terrible about admitting this.  There is a girl in one of my classes who is very special to me.  I have never met anyone more beautiful or with a sweeter temperament, and she knows that I like her.  I am worried that this relationship may get out of hand and I know that these feelings are very dangerous.  What should I do?

Advice

Firstly, you are right to say you are in a dangerous situation.  The good news is, you have taken a huge step towards safety by actually telling someone about it.  I rather suspect that you know the potential dangers if you allow this situation  to develop.  However, for anyone who is in doubt, it will be instructive to read the judge's summing up in a recent case.  

judge's comments prior to sentencing

Here are the steps I advise that you take, and they are all essential.

  1. Understand and accept that the relationship you have with this young person is utterly inappropriate, given your teacher / pupil relationship.  Yes, there are many cases where pupils have ended up marrying their teachers, but that can be a long and difficult road to travel.
  2. As a matter of urgency [like today or tomorrow at the latest] identify a senior colleague in whom you can confide.  I say this not because this matter can be kept confidential,  but because it would be helpful to have a sympathetic first hearing.  Unless your senior colleague is totally ignorant of protocol in these matters he or she will know whom you should speak to next.  This step of disclosing your professional difficulty is essential.
  3. After that it may be out of your hands.  Maybe things can be arranged so that you don't teach that group of pupils.  Maybe there are other measures that can be taken, but whatever happens, you will feel a huge sense of relief having offloaded your personal problem.
  4. Unless there is more that you haven't told me, it sounds as if things can be put right fairly easily, provided you are committed to a proper resolution. 
  5. You must make sure that you stop giving out any signals of encouragement to this young person.  It may be painful for her for a while, but it is necessary for you both.
  6. Perhaps an appropriate colleague can keep an eye on this young person and make sure that they are supported through this emotionally vulnerable time.  You wouldn't want her to rebound into the hands of the year ten Lothario.
  7. Pray about the whole matter.  And if you can get someone else to pray with you, so much the better.
  8. You might be wise to revisit your whole attitude towards your students.  What is the best kind of relationship to have with them?  Obviously, Christian teachers love their pupils, but what kind of love should it be?  Where do you draw the professional line?

Three final points.  Firstly, take comfort from the fact that you have disclosed your feelings to a professional colleague before real damage is done.  It has shown your determination to avert disaster.  Secondly, don’t feel that because you are a male teacher, female teachers are immune.  In fact, they are vulnerable, too.  And last of all, be much in prayer to our God who knows you through and through, and wants the best for you and your students.

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Question

I’m in the middle of report writing and it’s proving almost impossible.  My head teacher monitors all reports and doesn’t want to see the same sentences used again and again.  Can you help?  June 2013

Advice

Yes, I can see that you have quite a challenge to avoid repetition in your reports.  However, I wonder if this is really the headteacher’s problem, not yours?  It is unlikely that your parents are going to meet up somewhere and compare reports.  Or maybe they will?

The good news is that Christian teachers see each child as unique, as God sees each of us.  Here are some suggestions:

1. Don’t write reports in poor quality time, after everything else is done and when you are tired.  For me, first thing in the morning, before the ‘normal’ routine of the day is the best time.

2. Pray that God the Holy Spirit will enable you to understand each child [but then you’ve probably been doing that since last September.]

3. I’m assuming that you are a primary teacher with one class of children to write reports for.  Picture each pupil one at a time and write down what adjectives, nouns and verbs come in to your Spirit-inspired mind.

4. Take these words and weave them into sentences.

5. Don’t write too much.  Keep your writing brief.  Avoid the negatives, especially those which may come back to haunt you.  These must be kept for face to face conversation at parents’ evenings.

6. If you get stuck, stop, take a break and pray for the wisdom of Solomon.

7. Always ask someone else to read what you have written.  All kinds of apparently invisible errors can easily creep in.  My wife, and finest critic, is invaluable in this respect.n

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Question

I am daunted by the prospect of completing an application for a new job.  Can you say anything encouraging to help me actually get and do it?

Advice

Let’s assume that your idea of moving jobs is a good one.  There are two parts to the application process.  First is the application form, often done online these days, and then the letter of application.  Here are my suggestions for going about this understandably daunting task.

1.   Gather all the important data you will need into one handy place, usually a computer document.  This will include a huge variety of disparate facts, ranging from your national insurance number, details of previous employments, to qualifications and schools attended.  This document will be a valuable reference whilst completing a form online.

2.   Always keep a copy of what you have written.  Does the online system allow you to print a copy for your reference?  If not you may need to enlist the services of a ict whizz-kid to get a paper copy.

3.   Keep your letter of application short.  Ideally one side of A4 and certainly anything over two sides risks not being read by the appointments panel.

4.   Your letter needs to say, in essence, (a) I am worth interviewing, (b) I can bring relevant experience to the role, and (c) I have the values you are looking for.

5.   You need to strike a balance between clearly communicating your qualities and not blowing your own trumpet.  This can be quite difficult for Christians in education who seek to attribute their achievements to God.

6.   Be able to tell more about anything you write.  At interview I have asked candidates about activities they mentioned on their application, only to find that a course they attended was in fact a half-hour briefing session at a conference fringe meeting.

7.   Do ask your prospective referees if you can put their names down on your form.  To receive a request for a reference without know that the applicant is applying can be displeasing.

8.   Be realistic about your abilities, especially where they can be tested.  An aspiring deputy asserted in her application that she could play the piano.  Once in post, her piano playing made my granddaughter’s performance sound like a concert pianist.  There is a big difference between grade one and grade seven.

9.   Having completed your letter of application give it to someone to proof read.  The appointments panel will probably be teachers themselves, for whom seeking out errors is second nature.  Very recently I have come across misplaced capital letters and apostrophes, and a different school named in the text – obviously a recycled application.  We chose not to interview that applicant.  However, the applicant subsequently was successful in obtaining a post!  The moral in all this is to keep applying.

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Question

I am told that the end of January is the most depressing time of year.  I leave home in the dark and return home in the dark so I only see my garden at weekends.  It seems that every new initiative in schools requires me to do more and more.  I leave every staff meeting feeling frustrated and undervalued.  All this hoop-jumping is taking my energy, energy I desperately need for teaching five hours every day.  And then my church think that I am not committed because when asked to lead the youth group I demurred.  Wouldn't I be better off stacking shelves at the local supermarket?

Advice

You mention three very clear realities here.  Firstly, yes it's dark and cold and potentially depressing.  Secondly, yes, the demands on teachers are becoming greater.  Thirdly, yes, your church perhaps doesn't understand your work-load.  So what can I say?

Here is what God says in Isaiah 40 28-31: 'Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary,  and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.'

Have you ever wondered why your students have so much energy bubbling up all the time, and have you secretly wished that energy levels could be swapped so you could be perpetually effervescent and they a little more sober?  The youths Isaiah refers to are the crème de la crème, the finest.  Whereas their strength eventually fails, those who hope will renew their strength.  Hope here means  resting and waiting patiently, and putting on fresh strength, again and again.  Notice that walking, which is everyday activity, and running, which is special activity, are enabled by the Lord.

So how do we make this a practical reality?  Firstly believe that life can be better and that God is not limited like we are in time or place.  Secondly, recognise that rest is a biblical concept, so make sure you plan time for it.  Give it priority in your routine, the same priority as activity.  Understand rest as a necessity.  For example, if you go to bed half-an-hour earlier, you can get up half-an-hour earlier in the quiet of the early morning and pray, and read this passage in Isaiah, and plan your day.  Make it a time of conversation with your Lord, a time of reflection on yesterday's activity, and a time of creative ideas for catching the imagination of the young people in your care.  If you want to be one of those who hope in the Lord and renew their strength, then make a clearing in the jungle of your day for this to happen.

And notice that these are promises of God; worth spending time pursuing and making a reality in your busy life.

As for your church folk, you need to help them understand that your daily work is very significant part of your ministry.  And as for the supermarket, talk to God about that!   With acknowledgement to the work of Alex Motyer.

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Question

A member of my team has applied for a new job and I have been asked to provide a reference for her.  Not having done this before, please advise what I should and shouldn’t say.  February 2013

Advice

It’s wise to ask this question before you go ahead and write anything. Interestingly you didn’t mention a written reference, although that’s probably what they want.  Why is it important?  A colleague’s professional reputation is valuable. Handle with care.

1.  What you write will be scrutinised, especially if the appointment is successful and then doesn’t work out.  So whatever you write must be factual.  Avoid being subjective or making any comment which you would find hard to substantiate if questioned.  Explain the context in which you have known the candidate, and for how long.  Your comments should relate only to that period of time.

2.  Christians will, in the same spirit of generosity which characterises our Saviour, want the best for our colleagues.  ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.’  Philippians 4.8 NIV.

3.  It’s well known that recipients of references will read between the lines and look to see what hasn’t been said.  One head I know, rather than asking for references, sends a questionnaire with a bank of statements, asking the referee to tick the statement which most closely matches the candidate.  For example:  ‘Punctuality   (1) Consistently arrives well before the required time.  (2) Arrives by the required time  (3) Is sometimes late arriving.’  You cannot pussy-foot around difficult areas with this format.

5.  Of course, there may be valid reasons why number three (above) may be true. Temporary difficulties with childcare, or a rocky patch in a relationship.  One way round this is a telephone conversation under Chatham House rules, where the truth and extenuating circumstances can be explained.

6.  Ideally, you should feel comfortable about showing your written reference to your colleague i.e. the subject of the reference.  When my referees have done that for me I have appreciated it.

7.  Will a disclaimer protect me from liability? No.

8.  Should you ever give a glowing reference in order to get rid of someone?  Only if the glowing reference is truthful.  The only other way is to work with that colleague to change undesirable aspects of their work. 

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Question

I’ve been at my school for nine years, which seems a long time.  I love it here but feel that maybe I ought to move on.  My problem is that I have no experience elsewhere and virtually no experience of interviews and don’t want to find myself in an unhappy school.  Have you any tips for finding the right job?

Advice

Firstly, there is nothing wrong in being in a school for a long time.  Your nine years show that you have stickability.  There’s also nothing wrong in feeling that you’d like a change, as there is a limit to the opportunities that one school can offer. 

1.  Do ask yourself, “Am I the sort of person who is slow to or anxious about making changes.?”  If so, and you do want to move, enlist the help of a Christian friend or relative to help you (maybe quite forcefully!) to seek out applications and apply.

2.  The only way to address your two perceived “problems” is by exercising faith, see Hebrews 11.1.  So, study the advertisements.  www.tes.co.uk/jobs  and www.eteach.com  are good starting points.  Then actually apply for jobs, get interview experience and work in different settings.

3.  It is, of course, essential to pray about this, as God actually wants the best for you, and he will guide you.  Keep close to God at times like this, and ask others to pray for you too.  This is what church, and house group is for.

4.  I can understand your concern that you might find yourself in a school you don’t like, and most of us feel comfortable in the rut we are in, as it’s familiar and predictable.  However, the only way out of this predicament is to go for it and try.

5.  If you find a job that sounds appropriate, then do your research.  Study the school website and read the Ofsted report.  Read the job advert very carefully. What do they really really want?

6.  You might use any networks, like your trade union, to discover what the school is like to work in.  What is staff turnover like?  Have there been redundancies? 

7.  You might consider asking a friend, or better still someone you don’t know very well, if they would give you a  mock interview.

8.  Completing the application form, often online these days, is straightforward enough.  Be utterly honest, but don’t understate yourself.  If there is a letter of application, then keep it brief.  Yes, write it with reference to the job specification, but don’t address every point.  Consider the committee which has to read your application.  They are much more likely to read one side of A4 than four or five closely printed pages.

9.  When you do apply, work into the letter of application some comment on why they have stayed so long that points to loyalty to their school and dependability, both attributes that would be very welcome in a new school.

10.And do get someone to proof read your application.  Even if you have a masters degree in journalism, you cannot do it yourself.  A fresh pair of eyes is absolutely essential.

11.You will have constructed criteria for your new job.  Just make sure that the criteria doesn’t limit what might otherwise be an excellent job.  “I won’t travel more than half an hour to work” might exclude a dream job forty minutes away. Be flexible and open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

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Contact ACT:

Clive Ireson, Director
01604 632046

or you can email clive@actforhim.org.uk and leave a contact telephone number.

Advice Line information:

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The Advice Line is edited by Clive Ireson, ACT’s director, who has been working with teachers for over thirty years. ACT advice comes from staff, trustees and members who all contribute to the answers given here.

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