A bbc Interview with Clare Sealy @claresealy
First could you please give me a brief outline of who you are, your ´real´ identity if you want it sharing, where and what you teach.
I’m head teacher of St Matthias Primary School in Bethnal Green, Tower Hamlets and have been since 1997. I haven’t taught regularly for 20 years, though do a bit of booster class stuff with year 6 and very occasionally cover a lesson.
What made you become a teacher?
I fell into teaching. What I really wanted to do when leaving university was – and this might be a surprise – be a priest in the Church of England. Anyway, they said I was too young and too anti-authoritarian so told me to go and get a job where I had to experience being in authority and then come back later if I still felt that was right. So I was floundering about, not sure what on earth to do when I saw an ad for teaching and thought ‘that’s a job, I could do that for a bit.’ I’m ashamed to say that primary teaching never occurred to me – my mum was a primary school teacher and I honestly thought it was nature tables and finger painting while the real work went on at secondary. Sorry about that. So I got a place at the London Institute of Education training to be a secondary RE teacher. We had to do 2 weeks primary experience before the term started so I went to this primary school in Camden and thought it was amazing. On the first day of training I asked if I could swap to primary and was told in no uncertain terms no. So I trained as a secondary RE teacher in secondary schools and that was fine too. However, it was a time of primary teacher shortages (sounds familiar!) and I saw an advert for a primary school in Wapping, Tower Hamlets. They were obviously desperate and said in the ad they would take anyone with a teaching qualification – not necessarily primary trained. So without any primary training at all I found myself teaching a year 4 class. I was awful, but quite creative and through trial and error eventually became less terrible. This was in a time long ago before Ofsted, before lesson observations. So no one came and saw me teach or gave me advice. Not ideal.
After 2 years in Wapping, I moved to my present school, St Matthias. The story of how I unexpectedly fell into being head teacher 6 years later would take too long but was unconventional to say the least. Trial and error were also involved! Maybe I should write a blog about it sometime. I’ve been there ever since, though I did a spell (very part time- while still head) as a SIP in Essex and a few years ago was interim exec head for another Tower Hamlets school (and St Matthias) when their head teacher retired for a couple of terms.
What is your favourite part of the job?
A head teacher’s job is just so varied; it’s never dull. One minute you are making high level strategic decisions about the budget, the next you are sorting out a playground argument, then observing a maths lesson, then leading an assembly, meeting with the literacy coordinator to talk though her staff meeting on reading, discussing plumbing with the premises manager, dealing with an angry parent, explaining data to governors…
I know everybody goes on about how lovely it is to know you are making a difference and those special light bulb moments when a child (or member of staff for that matter) finally gets it. Those are really true for me too. But I also love the intellectual challenge of it all too – thinking strategically and analysing stuff and endlessly trying to find ways of doing things better. I find that really stimulating. I think I’m a much better head teacher than I ever was a teacher because I love that side of it all.
What has been best thing you have done at work this year?
In partnership with our amazing literacy leader, stopping marking and introducing whole class feedback instead. And (actually she did most of this) introducing whole class reading rather than guided reading carousel style. As a head often you might have the initial idea for something but it is only down to the hard work of others that your ‘bright ideas’ actually happen. They work out the fine detail so that it actually works – that’s the hard bit.
This year my blog has really taken off and got a fair bit of interest. That’s been weird. Great but weird. I get quite a lot of people through twitter asking for advice and some tweets have been so hyperbolic it’s untrue. The staff are a bit bemused. I think they think – look she’s ok but she can be really annoying and it’s alright working here but it’s not heaven on earth, it’s still really hard work.
What is the most frustrating thing about teaching at the moment?
Budget problems have meant I’ve had to cut our social worker, speech therapist, home school liaison officer, specialist music tuition, artist in residence, our maths intervention teacher, am about to make support staff redundant, dramatically cut back swimming, staff training, the budget for everything but especially books, probably more things I can’t recall right now. It’s like taking a hammer to something I’ve spent 20 years building up.
What songs would be on your driving to work playlist?
Why this of course , especially the tracks Old Friends, A Wonder and Please. The band is Its Own Animal and the album is called Masts. Also available on Spotify.
I may be ever so slightly married to the song writer and the female vocals are sung by a TA called Jo in our school. Do give it a listen and make an old(ish) man happy!
What is the funniest thing a child has ever said/written in your class?
When East End ks1 pupils sound out the word ‘can’t’ in their writing using their accent, that can be hilarious, especially in a sentence such as ‘my mum said you can’t.’
Recently a very young, but very confident EAL 3 year old, very new to our nursery, decided to explore my office having escaped from wherever he was meant to be. I had no idea who he even was, he was that new. He walked up to me, patted me on the stomach and announced ‘big belly, baby belly’ then left. That made be chuckle a lot.
Then there was the time I was having an important meeting with someone or other and an autistic child ran into my office stark naked through one door and left by the other, closely pursued by his very embarrassed TA. It was like something from Benny Hill. I know that’s not saying or writing – but hey – all behaviour is communication eh!
What is your guilty pleasure?
I have so many, where to start. There’s this car show, recently moved to Amazon from the BBC. The main presenter is pretty reprehensible in many ways – but he is so funny too. Look I only watch it by default when my sons are watching it, but still… feel bad that I enjoy it.
If you weren´t a teacher, what would you be and why?
I’m a bit old now to change careers, but if I had a time machine and wasn’t going to be a teacher I think I would love to be a political journalist. Someone like @owenjones84
What are you passionate about (teaching-related or not)?
Social justice, and schools as a vehicle for prompting social justice. Not just through empowering children through ensuring they get their fair share of the intellectual resources that are their birth right but also through building a school community where people from different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds get along famously and share a common commitment to respecting all people, being compassionate and helping to build a fairer and more peaceful world.
I really like writing too. I’m so glad I discovered blogging after all these years. I think it’s the pulpit I never got to have!
If you had to pick one subject/topic to teach on a loop forever, what would it be?
Hard to choose. Maths can be great when you explain something and they find the solution as pleasing as I do. I’ve got science A levels so I really enjoy teaching science – it probably helps that my subject knowledge is pretty good. Actually teaching sex ed. is always fantastic because once they’ve got over the initial embarrassment, they really want to know about it and are so pleased that someone is just going to answer their questions in a straightforward and factual way, without getting embarrassed. I’ve always found the class absolutely hang on my every word during those lessons. I don’t know if I would want to teach that on a loop though!
What is the most effective resource/technology/app you use in the classroom?
We like classdojo at St Matthias, both for behaviour reward system and for the ease with which you can share stuff with parents.
Like everybody else, the visualiser has become an indispensable piece of kit – especially for giving feedback on writing.
We realised that we were mainly using our ipads just to access the internet so instead of buying more, I bought a set of kindle fires when they were on special offer for £30 each. So I got 10 for the price of less than one ipad! We use them at the start of maths lessons for practising hit the button and times table rockstars, among other things.
What is the most effective routine/method/system you use in the classroom?
We do a lot of paired work and always insist that children answer in full sentences.
We’ve done a lot of work on promoting children’s independence so they know to do 3be4me (think about it another way, ask your partner, ask your group before you ask an adult). We did a lot of work with TA’s using the MITA project materials and that was really effective at preventing spoon feeding of children and making all children struggle a bit, in a good way.
If you had to pick 4 people (Twitter or otherwise) to invite to a dinner party who
would it be and why?
I have honestly lost sleep over this mulling over who to choose and not wanting to leave anyone out. I’ve got so many interesting people I converse with on twitter. I think I’m going to go for a gurl thang and choose @TemplarWilson, @HeyMissPrice (had great DM
conversations, be lovely to continue IRL), I heard @shinpad1 at Primary rocks and she was very thought provoking and knowledgeable there (as well as on twitter) and @teach-well whose blog is fantastic.
What is the best and worst advice you have been given as a teacher?
Although I did a secondary RE PGCE, for my second subject I did ‘remedial reading’. It was all about the apprenticeship model of learning to read and write through osmosis. Phonics was derided as ridiculous. There was this boy in my first yr 4 class who couldn’t really read or write at all, so spurred on by my course, encouraged him to write ‘developmentally’ and not be embarrassed that he didn’t seem to have any grapheme-phoneme correspondences (not that anyone used those terms in the 80’s). So eventually he would write pages of gibberish – completely unreadable. I was so proud –I really thought I’d done him a favour and that eventually the spelling thing would just come. That child must be approaching 40 now – I hope someone actually sat down and helped him learn the alphabetic code and some point. Why oh why did the whole profession think it was such a bad idea for so many years?! And why do so many people think it’s an either or between phonics or high quality children’s literature? We need to find time in the day for both.
Best advice – going to visit Ruth Miskin when she was head teacher at Kobi Nazrul School and seeing how phonics teaching enabled the children to excel. It was a real eye opening moment.
Final Question: What drives you as a teacher?
I think I answered this in the question about passion. Also, as I mentioned above, the quest to try and get it right is just so interesting!
If you could choose one person who you´d love to have the bbc interview treatment, who would it be and why?
All of the people at my dinner party obviously. You’ve done quite a few people I’d suggest already. But somehow you’ve missed @primarypercival, he’s a funny guy.