60 seconds with....Sue Cowley

Writing, training, helping to run a pre-school and even dancing for Queen! This no-nonsense educator has many strings to her bow and is certainly not one to mince her words. Meet the very passionate Sue Cowley.

How long have you been working in education and what’s your current role?

I’ve been working in education for almost 25 years now. Now I do a real mixture of things. I spend a lot of time writing books and articles for publications such as Teach Primary, Nursery World and so on. I provide training and presentations for schools and other organisations internationally, most frequently on behaviour management, but also on other topics such as writing, creativity and differentiation. I also spend quite a bit of time helping to run my local preschool, which I’ve been doing for ten years now.

What do you like most about what you do?

I love the variety – there is no such thing as a typical day for me because my work is so diverse. I love that I get to go into lots of different settings, that I get to meet so many educators and that they share their ideas so freely with me. I’m very lucky because I get to travel lots – not just in the UK but also around the world. I also love writing – I am constantly grateful and amazed that I get paid to do the thing I most love to do.

What is your ethos and vision for education?

Probably the most important thing for me is that we keep the children at the centre of everything we do. Too often I see people in government or in prominent positions talk about education without using the word children. I think we have become far too focused on data and spurious notions of how accountability can work, or how teaching ‘should be’, and we run the risk of losing sight of who we are doing it all for. In the end it is never about us, it is always about the children.

A lot of your work has been in behaviour management, why?

It was seventeen years ago now that I wrote my book Getting the Buggers to Behave. Since then it’s been updated several times, and it remains my most popular publication. I’m very interested in behaviour – specifically in the areas of motivation and engagement. As a child I became a school refuser, because of some of the methods of control that my teachers used with me and my classmates. I think this led to a lifelong interest in how and why children engage with or disengage from school.

Can you give some examples of the behaviour you have seen?

So often what we do with behaviour is focus on the negative, so I’d like to give you an example of positive behaviours. Every Thursday we take the children at our preschool outside to do forest club for the day, whatever the weather. Observing how the children behave in response to challenges in the great outdoors is always an inspiration for me. That moment when you see a two-year-old struggle her way to the top of a muddy bank – that’s what resilient behaviour looks like to me!

What are your top tips for behaviour management?

Be clear about what you need from your learners, stay calm while trying to achieve it, and aim to focus on the positive. Very easy to say; often very tricky to do!

Do you think schools are adequately resourced to manage behavioural issues?

No, I don’t think they are, and I think that the pressures of accountability and testing are making matters worse. At our preschool we fund a ratio of at least one adult to every five children aged 3-4 years. I think this really helps when we need to dig down into what is going on behind the behaviours that we see, because we have the time and space to talk things through, rather than just moving straight into using a ‘system’.

If you were educational secretary, what would you change in the sector?

I would change the way we assess children, so that instead of SATs and GCSEs, they had a portfolio of learning that they built up over their time in school. I would like assessment to be about a celebration of what the individual child has achieved over time, rather than a timed test to supposedly sum up an entire education in relation to an ‘average’.

Who is your education idol and what three qualities do you think you share with them?

It would have to be my mum, who was also a teacher. Like her, I am always learning, I have what some people call a ‘natural’ way with children, and I don’t stand for any nonsense.

How would colleagues and pupils describe you?

Creative, a bit weird, always willing to give things a go.

What do you do when you're not working?

I love gardening, and I spend a lot of time working on my allotment.

You’ve achieved a huge amount in your career, what are you most proud of?

That moment when someone comes up to me to tell me that my book or my training made a genuine difference to their teaching. Thankfully, this happens to me quite often!

Tell us something that would surprise people about you.

I once appeared as a dancer in a Queen video.

And finally, just for fun.... 

Lie in or up with the lark? 

Lie in

Decaf or Full caff? 

Tea not coffee

City or seascape? 

Seascape, I love the sea

Dine in or dine out?

Eat out, but for lunch rather than dinner

Book or Boxset? 

Book, I rarely watch TV

I couldn't get through the weekend without.. 

Digging on my allotment

Sue’s latest books are The Artful Educator and The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation. Her website is www.suecowley.co.uk. 

By Jennie Adams on 10th May 2018

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