I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how I have become a very boring teacher!
I have become a very boring teacher. In the past I have had a few imaginative ideas about how to help students learn. The Janus-faced sentence is, perhaps, my best. Teaching genre theory via an analogy with the history of baked beans wasn’t bad, if a little lacking in nuance. And a kinaesthetic demonstration of the law of diminishing returns in the short run which involved each of my A level students pretending to be the marginal employee of a web-designing company which couldn’t afford the land and capital to expand, worked a treat. But beyond that, I spent 25 years flailing around, teaching KS4 and KS5 qualifications in Photography, Leisure & Tourism, Media Studies, English Literature, English Language, CoPE, Economics, General Studies and Mathematics relying upon my enthusiasm and force of character above any understanding of how children learn. Looking back, it is hard to believe any of my students learnt anything.
We all have a professional and moral obligation to try to become better teachers. For me, that has meant unlearning over the past five years a great deal of what I had assumed constituted effective teaching. So now I am a born-again devotee of textbooks, often reading through with students a difficult passage in a text book for two hours straight, explaining whatever they don’t understand; I set a homework every lesson for students to make notes from the textbook in an A3 exercise book ready for the next lesson, and I mark those notes; I model regularly, in real detail, the writing process; I ask students to copy from the board in real time as I model; I spend several lessons on a single topic until I am sure the students understand it; I teach tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary in a profoundly thorough way; my slow-teaching approach means I never take for granted that students understand what I have taught them; I use videos of other teachers explaining concepts that I find hard to explain myself; and I low-stakes-test students frequently, having become an ardent fan of MCQS. Who would’ve thought it!?
The Holy Grail of teaching and learning is the self-regulated learner. The EEF Metacognition and Self-Regulation Guidance Report is a must read. It contains this description of Nathan.
Beyond teaching content thoroughly, our challenge is to teach the Nathans in our classrooms how to self-regulate, especially the Nathans who come from disadvantaged backgrounds; we cannot just assume they know how to manage their own learning. Callum, one of my Year 13 Economics class, secured an A* in this summer’s examinations. Back in May I asked my Years 13s what, of all the things I do when I teach, helps them learn most, and Callum replied, “When you read through the text book and explain it to us”. What I have learnt is that students enjoy lessons when they learn, not when they are entertained. And it is possible to teach in a way I perceive to be dull and the students still enjoy the lessons. In the Thank You card they gave me another student wrote: “Thank you for all your effort over the past year. I feel so much more confident in myself and economics. It’s been such a year with all the laughs we’ve all had.” Despite the radical changes in my teaching, one of the truths I still believe is that at the heart of good teaching and learning are positive, respectful teacher-student relationships.