Teaching insights from across the world [interview]

Sue Cowley

Sue Cowley is a writer, presenter and teacher, and author of 26 books on education. Her best seller, Getting the Buggers to Behave, has been translated into 10 languages and is a set text on teacher education courses. After training as a Primary teacher, Sue taught English and Drama in Secondary schools in the UK and overseas. She works internationally as a teacher trainer, and her websites are www.suecowley.wordpress.com, www.roadschooldiary.co.uk and www.celebrate-writing.co.uk.

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Sue at Northern Rocks // Image courtesy of author. Sue at Northern Rocks // Image courtesy of author.

Sue Cowley is a teacher, author, presenter, traveller, presenter and chair of a preschool committee, which she has helped to run for eight years. Given that Sue has enjoyed a wealth of international experiences across her career so far, we sat down to discuss behaviour, travel, being an author and more.


You've thus far written a staggering 26 books, including the wonderfully-titled Getting the Buggers to Behave. Tell us about your journey in achieving this.


As a child, I always dreamt of being a writer, but I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to make a living out of it. After several years of teaching in London, my partner’s job moved overseas, and I moved with him. I had a six month gap before starting my new teaching job, and so I decided to sit down and write a book (that book – How to Survive Your First Year in Teaching – is still in print today, almost 20 years later!). On our return to the UK, I was asked to write my second book, this time on behaviour. That book is my ‘international best seller’ Getting the Buggers to Behave, which has been translated into 10 different languages. The loveliest thing of all for me as an author is when I meet teachers who tell me that my book really helped them in their classrooms, or changed the way that they manage behaviour for the better. This is exactly what I had hoped for – that the book would be really practical and helpful for my readers.


Since the success of those first two books, I’ve just kept on writing. I’ve written books on various areas of teaching in which I have experience. I’ve written about teaching writing, teaching drama, developing thinking skills and creativity, early writing, parenting small children and various other topics. If I’ve done it, I’ll write about it, is basically my motto! My latest book is The Artful Educator, published by Crown House, and in that I give masses of ideas and strategies to help teachers stay artful and creative in their classrooms.


How far has behaviour management come during your career?


I think teachers are generally more aware of the strategies that they can use to manage behaviour. There is definitely more thought nowadays about the problematic link between exclusions and children with SEND, looked after children, and those young people who end up in youth custody. We have finally started to join up the dots. In part, behaviour has become more complicated since the legal duty of inclusion was placed on schools. When you are required by law to include everyone, you need to be more reflective about the role that your setting plays within the wider community, and also how you can support all learners to access mainstream education.


Sadly, I think there have been some regressive steps in the area of behaviour in the last few years. The outbreak of ‘no excuses’ regimes and punitive approaches seems to be linked to the pressure on schools to achieve good exam results over all else. While high expectations are very important in ensuring good behaviour, ‘no excuses’ can end up becoming a way to select by child or parental attitude. Children who refuse to comply end up being excluded, but these young people still have to go somewhere to be educated. Consequently, the danger is that we end up with a two tier system where only some schools are fully inclusive and serve their local community, taking on more of the more complex cases.


What are your top tips for ensuring that teaching stays creative? Your website includes classroom activities built around flour babies, cans of dog food and crime scenes...


It’s my feeling that teaching is (or should be) a truly creative act. While the current focus from the DfE is on finding evidence for specific methods that ‘work’, it strikes me that what actually ‘works’ – those teachers who inspire us to love learning, or to love a subject – is often about people who developed a creative relationship with a class, rather than about the methods that they used. By showing the children that we can be creative in our teaching, we model that attitude for them, and encourage them to develop their own creativity.


One of the key enemies of creativity is prescription, so my main recipe for schools to help their teachers stay creative is to allow them to use their professional judgement rather than telling them what they must do in their classrooms. The changes to the curriculum can make this difficult, but there is always a balance to be struck between ‘getting through the curriculum’ and actually making the learning stick. When I’ve been having most difficulty getting children to behave and engage, I always come back to the idea that the learning should be the most engaging thing of all, and it takes a good dose of creativity to ensure that this happens. I love using concrete activities to help my students understand abstract concepts, and this is where the dog food, crime scenes and bags of flour come in. I met someone yesterday who told me how she teachers the concept of a ‘fair society’ in RE by using Starburst sweets. This is exactly the kind of approach that inspires me. A great starting point for staying creative is to experiment with using different objects in your teaching.


Your work has taken you to such locales as Switzerland, Slovenia and Chile. What do you enjoy about working with educators around the world?


It’s very exciting to visit other countries, to learn more about their education systems, to share my ideas around the world, and to gather great new ideas in return. I recently went to Sweden to work with teachers there, and was surprised (and delighted) to discover that it is actually illegal to humiliate a child in a Swedish school. And that the test of whether something is humiliating is not what the teacher thinks, but what the child feels. This means that teachers there can’t use any kind of public, whole-class system of rewards or sanctions. No star charts, no bad behaviour clouds, no public rankings. These systems have become endemic in English education, which raised some really interesting questions for me to ponder on my return to the UK.


The other great thing about working overseas is when it is possible to combine a work booking with family travel. My trip to Chile fell during the school holidays, so we were able to fit in a tour of southern Chile and an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Easter Island!


You and your partner took your children out of school for six months to educate them as part of 'Road School'. What was that like as an educator?


It was an absolutely wonderful experience to educate our children ‘on the road’, although thankfully the learning took the form of real-life, hands-on lessons, as much as it did us sitting them down and teaching them as you would in school. We wanted to see whether it was possible for our children to learn through travel and through lived experience – by visiting cities, museums, historic sites, art galleries, volcanoes, and so on. They certainly learned things that they couldn’t possibly have learned in school, for instance how to cope with different currencies, and with being constantly on the move – these are the kind of things that I believe build resilience and adaptability in young people. Our children had already lived overseas for a couple of years when we went travelling, and these experiences do seem to have built in them a sense of looking outwards to the wider world.


From my perspective as an educator, it was great to finally visit some places that I’d wanted to go to for years – to add real life experience to things I had previously learned about from books. I particularly fell in love with the landscape of southern Italy, and of Sicily, and we would all love to go back there soon. While I’m probably not suited to home educating my children in the long term, it was a fantastic experience for our family, and it is something that our children will never forget. On our return to the UK, it was great fun to write Road School, which is totally different to anything I’ve ever written before. Think sardonic comedy, cultural misunderstandings and family mess ups, and you’ll get somewhere near the tone I tried for.


What do you hope to achieve in the next year?


I’ve just finished copy editing my latest book – The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation, which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2018. I always find it exciting to go through the publication process for a book – the layout, the copy edit, the proofs, the cover, the blurb – I love all those aspects of being a writer. I’ve got several overseas trips planned for the next year, both for work and for pleasure – our family loves to travel. I’m also a very keen allotmenteer and gardener, and having ‘finished’ one plot, I’ve started work on a second. I find the physical activity of gardening to be a great balance with the more intellectual one of writing.


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