Leadership by chocolate

When I started my first leadership role (Pastoral Care Coordinator) my Principal told me that ‘time is never wasted if you’re talking with someone.’ She went on to tell me that as a leader in the school, I had a responsibility for both staff and students. It was great advice – while my job description talked mostly about my interactions with students, it was obviously impossible to provide pastoral care for 1000 students on my own. I had to have the staff with me. It was a great learning for me on how to balance being a leader of staff, students, captains and also continuing my role in the classroom.

Fast forward a few years and I hit upon the ideal way to unobtrusively provide pastoral care to my team, this time as the Head of Humanities: chocolate! On Friday afternoons, during report writing or just days when the wheels were getting squeaky, out would come the trusty party packs of Mars bars or Cadburys (nut-free, of course… um, even the nut-free Toblerones or Ferrero Rochers!). Those teaching period 6 on Friday? There’s no way they miss out! Most of us taught with an open door, so it was easy to wander in to their classroom with a bag of chocolates, with one for the teacher and a few for whichever students most deserved one at the end of the lesson.

For those in the department who I didn’t share an office with it was also effective. Walking in and saying, ‘Hey, need a chocolate?’ is a very low-key way of saying ‘I know things are hectic, and I appreciate it. But it’s ok – tell me.’ Invariably, these members of the department had positions of responsibility and were near a secretary or two – and every teacher knows who really runs the school! Teachers get one chocolate, secretaries get two is the general rule (‘You’ll need one later’). And if a POR in an office gets the chocolate treatment, then the others who are around also get offered one. There are also often a couple of teachers who have a History/English load and are seated with their English colleagues. English teachers (or their helpers!) make the best cakes, so it was well worth reciprocating with the occasional chocolate!

What’s all this mean?

It is relationship building without forcing it. I’ve often felt it fake or forced when leaders do the rounds of the troops – I’m here, and I’m being seen to be around. (Yeah, I’m terrifically cynical…). But who isn’t bought off by chocolate at stressful times – especially when you work out people’s favourites and dig a dark Toblerone out of a Mars packet? You have remembered what they like, and that means you are listening. But it is even more important to be around during times of high stress.

Perhaps more importantly, when bad news needs to be given, or a quiet word, or a complaint raised, we have a relationship. Which actually has nothing to do with chocolate. We’ve talked. We’ve shared what is going on in our classes. We’ve talked about our kids or football or given each other abuse based on whatever point of difference. But it means the pointed fingers stay curled in our hands, our voices stay (mostly) jokey, or we can express frustration and the other knows the depth of our feeling. And we work out an amicable compromise. We apologise. We buy each other a drink on Friday afternoon. And we continue as effective colleagues. There is no us and them.

Did I set out to be a chocolate leader? Of course not – I’m just a generous sweet-tooth who figured if I was going to get fat I was going to take everyone with me!

The author has no current affiliation to any brands indicated in this post. He is more than willing to accept offers of sponsorship, however!

‘The greatest Australian you [Year 9] have never heard of’

I had a great lesson today as part of our unit on Australian identity. After looking at Aussie stereotypes I wanted them to go home and find 3-5 amazing Australians they had never heard of. I was impressed with the range of people they came up with and the depth of detail they had written down, so I found a fillable knockout tournament sheet and we proceeded to judge who we thought was the greatest Australian from our list.

Initially in groups of four, two presented their great Australian while the other two decided who they thought was the greater. Any ties was initially sorted by ‘surrender’ (your person deserves to win) or else decided by the classroom’s Final Arbiter (who did not need to be consulted).

The winners of each group found their next opponent and took with them their vanquished first round opponent. This continued through to the semi-final stage, when the last four presented in front of the whole class.

The final was between William Lawrence Bragg (x-ray analysis of crystals, DNA) and Fred Hollows (eye care/surgery, especially in indigenous communities). Representing Bragg was a tall, eloquent, Australian member of the school debating team versus a shy and quiet Indonesian girl who was so excited that ‘she’ won. This was an unexpected bonus out of the activity!

Below are the top 16 (there were a few preliminary knockouts to get it down to sixteen).

Year 9 Australian History

‘The Greatest Australian You’ve Never Heard Of’ – Year 9 History

(How typical is Hollows as a ‘great Aussie’? He was actually born in NZ…)

Effective formative essays – without marking every word

We know it is excellent practice for students to write formatively. The down side of course is the huge amount of marking that it creates if every week you have to mark every essay for every student for every class. Say goodbye to your weekend!

For senior classes who need to practise handwriting essays under time constraints in preparation for exams, I get them to write formative essays quite regularly but tell them that I am only going to focus on one or two of the following aspects – and they are absolutely NOT going to be getting ‘a mark’ – they will get comments.

  • Introduction
  • Topic sentences
  • Plan (and adherence to it)
  • Specific historical information / examples
  • Historiography
  • Highlight each place where you used key words from the question
  • Highlight / comment where you tried to improve based on comments from last week
  • Referencing
  • Bibliography – format, academic, used in text etc.

The other way of marking essays is peer marking. Using the criteria used in the exam, get students in groups of 3-4 to mark and comment on each others’, then give feedback. This one is best done with prior warning: it is a great incentive for a little bit more attention if they know their peers will be seeing it. And they are often far more critical on things like handwriting than we ever are! Only after they have had some experience in marking work they are not emotionally invested in do I get them to mark and comment on their own.

As far as questions go, again I structure it from me giving the specific question, to ‘come up with an appropriate question on …’ until towards the end of the course it is even less structured ‘These are the syllabus requirements: you give me a plan of what and when you will be writing essays and what aspect you want me to look at.’

What I am aiming for is a self-sufficiency that will see them able to construct a study plan for when they are at university and the ability to be self-critical. Of course, the last few revision weeks before exams I will mark and comment on everything that they submit.

I hope this gets your students working, and gives you some spare time!

History topics that are ‘overdone’ by students each year

This is my (edited) response to a question on the IBO’s ‘Online Curriculum Centre’ History Forum, asking if the question ‘To what extent was the dropping of the atomic bombs necessary for a U.S. victory in the Pacific War?’ was ‘overdone’.

I understand teachers’/examiners’ complaints about certain topics being ‘overdone’, but I think it misses the fundamental aspect of teaching: each year a new cohort is introduced to content that is new to them. And so what to us is the same old boring questions about WWII or Nazis or Cold War are for each new cohort of students the fundamental questions that they want to get their heads around. Perhaps it is time we started offering other aspects of history beyond military/political – or choose to offer topics that we have not taught for the last twenty years. It seems to me that we still offer a very (western European) Cold War-centric understanding of twentieth century history. Is it because it is the most important (as defined how/when?), it is what most of us were initially trained in or have taught for years, or it makes sense of the present?

Of the OP’s question (and most ‘overdone’ questions) I think that it can be answered simply by a younger years student or in can be answered in a great deal of depth with research, drawing connections between events and decisions and the use of primary documents which provide the rationale for the decisions: which should be the difference between a 10 or a 22 for the IA, not whether the examiner has seen the question before.

I struggle with the concept that students need to come up with something original – they are final year high school students doing 6 subjects, plus TOK & EE, not PhD students dedicating four years to one tiny subset of one area of one subject area.

I also think that we mark far too hard – surely someone else out there thinks 67% for a 7 is a joke – and we expect too much from teenagers to produce in a forty-five minute exam essay. I am absolutely for academic rigour, but not to the point where the IB cannot give exemplars of what a 25 for an IA looks like or examiners at subject workshops have only ever seen 16/20 for essays.

For all the rhetoric of creating inquirers, risk takers and problem solvers, we do not encourage it (in either teachers or students) when it comes to putting university entrance on the line.

A good IA should be able to stand on its own, whether the question appears every year or not: it is this student’s first foray into the topic even if the examiner has seen it 1000 times.