Towards sanity

A refreshing look at how we keep focused and upbeat amidst the challenges of our profession by Nige Armitstead.


As we ignite the afterburners to get the academic year off the ground, an almost private letter to a teacher who nearly gave up last year – a real and indeed quite special person…

Dear Kay

You have a pretty good life all things considered.  I have always admired the drive you bring to everything you undertake.  Perhaps the balance of things is open to improvement: from a touchline perspective I think your game is nearly all attack with poor quality defense.  I hope you won’t mind me saying so. We all have things in our lives of great value to us; things we should defend with as much strength and vigour as that with which we attack the try line of life.  It’s a rugby metaphor… Go Kay!!

What is it that needs defending?  My list would include health, home, and happiness of relationship.  Your list might be different, although I hope not entirely different.  The important point here is to be clear in your mind what the things are which have great value to you, that may sit in the background somewhat, that may be the foundation from which your zest for life springs, and which need your active attention to sustain the quality they give your life.  Your relationship of course is also a quality factor in another person’s life whose happiness you may want to defend.

You work extremely hard Kay, and towards the end of last academic year you began to say that it was defeating you: that perhaps you should give up teaching. To balance working hard you try to play hard, but it is all just too hard.  You have not burned out, but you know that you are risking it, even though you are still in your twenties and regarded as a ‘super teacher’ by your managers.

So enter a kindly old friend with some suggestions for an alternative but still high quality of professionalism…

Exhausted Coping is NOT OK

Teachers need their wits about them to keep one step ahead of the event mania of the school day.  The rolling problem analysis, judgement in an instant, and clocking of follow up needs that is continually present whilst in contact with students requires the mind to be in top form all the time.  Otherwise there is vulnerability to professional hazards. So making sure that you are at no point exhausted should be an absolute priority in order to do the job well. Do these things…

  • Prioritise sleep hygiene. Hours before midnight have double quality!
  • Get to school with time to relax before the students arrive.
  • Always go to the staff room at break time, and for at least half of the lunch hour.
  • Never see students outside lesson time.  Have a spare chair by your desk, and summon a student to it for a quiet chat during the lesson.  If necessary take a student outside the room for a quiet chat during the lesson. Beyond that, catch up with them during lessons you are not yourself teaching.
  • Always go home by 6.00pm
  • Never take marking home, ever.  (cf my suggestion on marking below)

Teaching can be an enlightened enjoyment rather than a dire enslavement.

It is so much more enjoyable to do the things your are interested in.  So be interested in teaching, and in particular…

  • Follow education in the news or in professional magazines.  Read books.
  • Stay in touch with and try out ideas: for example our ‘educationalhipsters’ blog.
  • Stop doing the dark brooding that teachers sometimes do that involves a low opinion of students, a disenchantment with school managers, and an embittered hard luck story of the self.  You can do better: make it your professional business to like students; work positively with managers; and take responsibility for positive self beliefs in relation to your role as a teacher.
  • Reflect on your classroom practice, always looking for what seemed to go well and therefore you might want to do more of.

Use a SIMPLE feedback mechanism for students to make progress.

For any year group the main aspects of the curriculum for any given subject should be possible to simplify on to one side of A4 paper, with room underneath for recording assessments that have been made.  The following is half of a feedback sheet which I used to hand out to GCSE students so that they knew what to aim at for different grade levels. It is derived from the GCSE curriculum but reconstructed as a set of statements which complete the sentence starter –  ‘In order to improve you need to…’

GCSE GRADE: 3 and 4 5 and 6 7 and 8
Spelling and




to spell high frequency words accurately; to use capital letters and full stops to apply spelling rules accurately; to use speech punctuation and indents to spell unusual words accurately; to use punctuation for sophisticated phrasing
to use basic vocabulary with some qualifiers (eg. very, extremely etc.) to use extended vocabulary without qualifiers to use elaborated vocabulary to convey precision meaning, subtlety and fine nuance
to write correctly structured sentences including commas for basic phrasing to use sophisticated phrasing in order to embed one sentence inside another to use specific phrasing for analytic writing; comparisons and contrasts
to indent the first line of a paragraph and use as a larger unit of meaning to give clear internal structure to paragraphs; topic sentence, details and completing sentence to use well structured paragraphs to organise the development of a story/essay

Of course this is the template for feedback which suits my mindset on the exam course assessment objectives.  Your template might look different. The thing is to explain it to the students and then use it to give feedback on their work, although in line with the comments below on marking.  For example, using impression only as an adequate analysis, I might put at the end of a piece of work PG 5/6, and the student would be able to consult their sheet and see what this involved, and furthermore what they needed to do better (in the box next door) to improve their grade.  Thus a useful feedback process is managed in a simple way with a low cost to time and effort (once the sheet is produced and put in student books).


Well, OK, not entirely stop, but let’s remember that if the feedback process is good, it is the poorest use of a teacher’s time to wade through yards of student work trying to grade every inch of it.  Instead…

  • Check at a glance that the work expected has been properly presented.
  • Ask students to put a mark by any aspects they want you to look at more carefully, up to a maximum of three.
  • Comment by those marks, extremely briefly.
  • At the end of the work record your impression of it, using the system offered above for feedback or something like it.  (Students should know in advance what the particular line of grading was going to be relevant, eg ‘Spelling and Punctuation’ etc.
  • NEXT!

Allow a MAXIMUM of two minutes for each student’s work, and aim for it to be one minute.  Take the obvious short cuts such as asking students to hand in their exercise books stacked open at the page on which the work is to be found.

Marking wastes time.  There are more important things to be good at.  Cut through it as quickly as you can. Talk to students about their work rather than writing long comments.

School managers should be helping to protect you.

So if they aren’t insist that they do.  Find a fair and reasonable way to address issues to senior managers.  If you fear that you will not be treated well then get support. But having said that, my experience is that when managers know you are a good and committed teacher, they will be only too happy to listen and help.  After all, nothing I have said above would erode good learning, and therefore all of it should help sustain or improve a school’s examination results.

The conclusion is the same as the start, and that is that you can only sustain good teaching in the long term if you are enjoying what you do.  What I have tried to offer above are some suggestions about taking this into account, and having a good life alongside a good career. It isn’t about work life balance, as they aren’t ever likely to balance, not when you are a teacher.  But there is plenty you can do to make the imbalance acceptable and even happy.



Neuroscience of Executive Functions

By Nige Armitstead

Following Nige’s 7 minute talk at the Teach Meet last week, here is a blog on the neuroscience of executive functions. Enjoy!

Educational neuroscience (cf Learnus: is a pioneering collaboration between academics at the forefront of neuroscience and specialists in the arena of education and its future.  The aim is to make our growing understanding of how the brain works both accessible and useful to teachers in classrooms, now and tomorrow.

This presentation was concerned with executive functions.  These are the self regulating means by which we promote fluency and effectiveness in our thinking and behaviour.  We need executive functions most of all in situations where intuition and/or direct responding may not be entirely effective.

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I have appropriated this diagram to give some idea of how phenomena of mind rely on the networking of different brain areas.  Coloured areas are those shown through research to be involved in self regulation. In the article from which this diagram comes the focus was moral self regulation, but the executive functions which we are looking at are fully implicated.

The prefrontal cortex is that which lies just behind the front of the brain.  Its dorsal lateral area is that which appears to initiate executive functions, regulating the chaos of mind by instigating the brain networks needed.  In general terms the dorsal lateral area is essential to managing and adapting to variation of meaning and context. It is the part of the brain which has the slowest rate of structural maturing, this not being completed until after adolescence.  Hence we should view it as a maturing process on which we can have an impact as educators. We can help build strong executive functions.

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These are considered the three core aspects of self regulation.   Inhibiting refers to the suppression of distracting thoughts. Switching refers to changing from one way of seeing things to another.  Working memory should really be called something else, such as ‘thought holding and processing since it allows a brief hold on the existence of a thought whilst the mind processes it with other thoughts.  

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These are all simple creative ideas for embedding a stimulus to the growth of executive functions within the normal classroom delivery of lessons.  Other and better creative ideas will doubtless come to mind, but have a go at some of these on which I have written brief notes of explanation below.


  • Simon says: the game where you only follow an instruction which begins ‘Simon says…’  However, in the classroom you only follow the instruction if a statement is true. For example…  ‘Clap your hands if tree is a verb!’ Not clapping requires inhibiting.
  • Prime students to react (hand clap again perhaps) when you speak a particular word, such as ‘examination’.  Then use similar words, such as ‘example’, every now and again during the lesson. Not reacting to a similar word requires inhibiting.  The target word could be something which you do want the students to learn about.
  • Forbidden word: Challenge students to explain something to the class without using a key word.  For example, explaining photosynthesis without the word ‘light’.


  • Hidden meaning: Students guess the word which a sequence of phrases or pictures will culminate in.  This is good for getting students interested in the topic for the lesson. For example: they are found in Africa, they are big, they have a trunk, they use it to suck up water, they have leaves!  Hopefully students switch from elephants to trees at the end, and in the process have to reappraise all the meanings they had attributed.
  • Points of view: Ask the class to list words which capture their view of a particular object or issue, such as a sports car.  Then ask them to suggest a list of words for the same thing which would be given by a class of students on a small island with no roads.  (That is not a great example, please come up with better ones…)
  • Levels of complexity: These crop up naturally in most learning situations.  The SOLO taxonomy (presented by Joe Burkmar) is a good way to stimulate switching through levels of complexity.  

Working Memory

  • Holding brief stimuli:  show a picture at the start of the lesson for a brief period, say 20 seconds.  Inform pupils they will be asked about it at the end of the lesson so they have to hold as much of it as possible in mind during the lesson.  Ask students for comments at the end of the lesson and then look to see how well they have done. Select a picture for relevance to the lesson content.
  • Visuospatial:  whilst arithmetic is thought to be managed mostly by the audio/verbal part of working memory, mathematical concepts are generally more associated with the visuospatial part.  Therefore aim to embed as much visual and spatial cuing as possible when teaching maths concepts, and help students respond to this aspect of those concepts.
  • Auditory/Verbal: unsurprisingly this part of working memory (sometimes called the ‘articulatory loop’) is involved in thinking with language.  Exercises which require a lot of verbal holding are good. For example, ask students to mentally select the fourth letters in the words chair, table and spider, but not to tell you anything until ready to say a word made out of those letters.  In this case it would be ‘lid’. Another example involves arithmetic: simply figuring out two mental sums and not responding until both answers can be given together. Only speak the question once as holding it in mind is part of the exercise. ‘Five thirteens and twenty three take away six’. Oh what fun!



Michelle de Haan, ‘Attention and Executive Control’

In Mareschal, D., Butterworth, B., and Tolmie, A.  Eds. (2013)

‘Educational Neuroscience’

CHICHESTER: John Wiley and Sons

TeachMeet SP7: Your guide

The aim of the TeachMeet this year is the spoil your mind, from the moment you arrive until the last 7 minute talk, we hope you’ll be inspired. 

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Here is a mini guide to getting the best out of the TeachMeet, whether it’s your first one or you are a seasoned attendee. It’s an exciting time for education and the landscape is changing and changing fast. Innovations in pedagogy and advancements in neurology form the central focus for an underlying theme of ‘connectivism’. We look to the big ideas from 2017 which are research backed and gaze forward at some of the bigger ideas due to sweep through the educational landscape next year. 

During the event we will be running a live twitter feed #teachmeetsp7

After the event we will be uploading a blog daily for 10 days about each of the 7 minute talks and links to research and ideas so you can explore them further. 

Arrive early

Try and escape from school as close to 3pm as possible and get your groove on. We open the doors at 4.30pm and there is an epic welcome hall to navigate with raffles, activities, displays, snacks and freebies. It will take you about 20 minutes to enjoy it all so aim to arrive for 4.30pm. You’ll receive a wifi log in when you sign in. No need to print tickets, the events sold out and we have your name. 

The Main Event 

The first 7 minute talk starts at 5pm on the dot. We plan to raffle off some prizes between speakers and there are 10 x 7 minute presentations in total. Here is a little insight into the main theme or idea

SOLO TaxonomyJoe Burkmar

As learning progresses it becomes more complex. SOLO, which stands for the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome, is a means of classifying learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess students’ work in terms of its quality not of how many bits of this and of that they have got right.

Flipped & Blended Learning Alex More

Teachers are choosing to ‘flip their classrooms’ in increasing numbers. How we use technology and blend interaction between the classroom in real time and learning at home is the crux of this issue. A research perspective sharing insights and current thinking.

STEAM  Rhona Phelps

Was STEM traditionally but recently saw the addition of Art to the existing Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Rhona Phelps has an engineering degree and a PhD in biomechanics and runs graphic science. The talk will focus on how you can inspire communities and families through the power of STEAM work and make the impact truly cross-curricular.

Staff Well Being Helen Finch 

Staff well being seems to be at the forefront of teachers minds. How is your HYGGE? A unique way to view the ‘wellness of you’ and some ideas to support teacher well being will always be popular. We hope by the time you get to the end of this talk you’ll feel inspired and valued. 

Google Classroom

An epic platform that makes it easy for learners and teachers to connect. Free and forward thinking Google Classroom is easy to set up, costs zero money, saves time and paper (better for the planet!), helps you organise learning and work and really enhances communication and feedback. It’s a game changer! 

Collaborative Learning – Josh Gardiner 

In a world of escalating populations, working as a team and the wisdom of the crowd has never been more important. Josh suggests some amazing ways to embed this in the classroom with pros and cons to help you navigate the tricky art of collaboration. 

Digital Literacy – Adam Morland 

Adam works in the tech industry and will be giving you direct insight into how important digital literacy is in a fast evolving digital landscape. What skills and dispositions will our learners need to thrive and survive? An interesting talk, get ready to embrace your digital natives and survive impostor syndrome! 

Brain Based Learning which is really Educational Neuroscience – Nige Armitstead

We have no idea what Nige will be presenting on but we know it’s always engaging, current and linked to his vast knowledge of the mind and how it works. Be prepared to take away new thinking about learning, cognition and how to relate it to your classrooms. 

Gamification – James Mosely 

James will be enlightening us about a new player in town, gamification. What is it? How can we embrace it in the classroom and how can we shape our lessons to appeal to the digital natives? All good questions … 

In Utopia 

If you could create the perfect school, what would it look like? The final talk focuses on this very issue and how we might prepare an education for a 2032 child. 

Estimated finish time: 6.30 pm. We will raffle off prizes between talks so the event will close after the last talk. 

How to get involved socially? 

During the event we will be running a live twitter feed #teachmeetsp7

After the event we will be uploading a blog daily for 10 days about each of the 7 minute talks and links to research and ideas so you can explore them further. 

See you on Wednesday! 

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