Holding your nerve – the missing element of great teaching?

Screenshot 2015-03-14 18.02.04

It occurred to me this week just how much good teaching is dependent on holding your nerve – how difficult it can be at times to stick to your guns when you have to contend with so many daily pressures. I don’t mean the undue external pressures, which often force teachers to compromise their practice: lack of time, fear of accountability, initiative overload or intervention fatigue. These things represent very real pressures, but they are not the subject of this post.

I am thinking instead about the pressures teachers often put on themselves. All teachers care about their students’ learning and they think a great deal about how to maximise their progress. The prevailing ethos of self-reflection, however, can lead to a continual cycle of doubt, where teachers consider and reconsider the way they teach and implement changes as a consequence. Whilst reflection is clearly an important element of good teaching, it can be exhausting and at times counter-productive: often what is required is simply to stick to one or two courses of action and pursue them relentlessly.

I love social media. I have got so much out of being part of an informed educational community, which freely shares ideas and resources. I therefore try and share what I can. I worry a little, though, about some of the enthusiasm I see towards materials shared online: not because these resources are necessarily bad, often they are great, but rather at the readiness at which they appear to be imported into classrooms. I know that every time I introduce something new into my teaching, I must take away something that I was doing before. I therefore try to be clear that what I bring in is going to be better than what I discard.

The profession understandably encourages teachers to try out new ideas and adapt their teaching. This makes sense, and I am certainly not against teachers trying to find new ways to improve their teaching. I do it myself. The trouble is, if you try too many new things, you never actually know what works. Was it the new resource I introduced? Was it the way I adapted my explanation? Was it the way I sequenced the material? If you change the variables, it becomes impossible to isolate what was successful, and therefore to replicate it again in the future. Sometimes less is more.

Limiting yourself to one or two new approaches therefore makes sense. Not only is it likely to be less stressful and more manageable than trying out something new each week, it is also practical –identifying what works or does not work allows more time to consider the reasons it was successful or unpick why it failed. Yet, holding your nerve and keeping one two areas of focus is very hard: it takes discipline and a little bit of courage, particularly when what you’re doing is not seeing immediate results. I am now in my 12th year of teaching and, despite all of that experience, I still have to resist the urge to change up what I am doing when I encounter a degree of difficulty or suffer a setback.

Year 11 – what is an image?

Three instances in the past few months have reminded me of the importance of working on one or two pedagogical developments at a time, and of sticking with them for a decent stretch of time. The first involves my year 11 class. This may sound incredibly ridiculous, but I don’t think in all the years that I have been teaching I have ever explicitly taught the concept of an image or imagery. The term is bandied around all the time in my lessons, often incorrectly, with students referring to the effect of this image or of that imagery. I have never actually sought to unpick the difference between the two or what distinguishes an image from simply just another word or phrase with some kind of wider connotation or evocative quality.

The concept ‘what is image?’ arose when I was preparing my top set for their iGCSE examination. For one of the questions students have to identify interesting uses of language and explain the effects on the reader. The mark scheme lays out the expected answers, and next to some of them it indicates what they consider are ‘images’. I wanted to understand why some of words and phrases were labelled images and others not. To my mind, it was not always clear – there was a discrepancy between my definition of imagery, and how the exam board were treating it in their mark scheme.

I decided to confront the issue head on with my class: they are a bright, inquisitive bunch and I thought a couple of lessons exploring the nature of images would be an ideal way of developing their conceptual understanding. The problem was that in order to develop their understanding of imagery, I first had to challenge their existing knowledge and remove some of their certainty. Understandably, they did not like this, and their hostile reaction made me want to retreat into the comfort of their prior, though incorrect, knowledge. I pushed on, but it was some weeks before I think I really moved on their understanding. A few years ago, I would have crumbled, even if was aware of the notion of desirable difficulty.

Year 13 – reading then writing

Over the past couple of years I have changed the focus of my teaching, particularly at A level. I understand much more about the importance of deepening knowledge of texts in order to write about them effectively. Whereas I used I to get students to complete lots of small pieces of writing as we worked our way through a text, I now do little if any writing until they have gained a significant knowledge base: from the basics of plot and character to analysis of meaning, critical insights and contextual influences. I plan much more for multiple interactions with knowledge, which I assess through low stakes formats.

It is now well into the second half term, shortly before Easter, that I turn to essay writing – once I feel the class have a decent grasp of the text and have something to say. This is the third year I have adopted this approach, and on each occasion I have constantly questioned whether or not I am doing the right thing. Whilst I am focusing on deepening understanding, I know colleagues have already set multiple essays. It still feels strange and counter intuitive to leave writing essays until a couple of months before the exam. And yet, each year I have noticed my class’s first essays are significantly better than they were using my previous approach. Their examination results have not suggested otherwise.

Year 13 – coursework: from first to final draft

I love the freedom and flexibility of coursework. When you get the right combination of texts and students with enquiring minds it is a pleasure to teach. Coursework can give students the opportunity to make interesting connections and explore ideas in much greater depth than is often possible with examination texts. That said, I never enjoy marking a pile of 2000-3000 word essays, particularly first drafts. From my experience, and this may be a consequence of my bad preparation, first drafts are not great – disorganised, riddled with error and far from the standard required.

Every year I quietly sob at my desk as I read through stodgy first draft after stodgy first draft and wonder where I went wrong. In years past I would have panicked, knowing coursework is a good opportunity for students to gain significant marks before the examination. I ask myself whether I need to run extra sessions, offer lengthy tutorials or provide better examples of the standards required. Yet every year, almost without fail, the final drafts are always appreciable better than the first. Sometimes the essays are almost unrecognisable, as students seem to realise that the deadline really is the deadline. This year it was no different. The first drafts were universally poor; the final drafts were a delight. If I feel this way, what must less experienced colleagues think with no experience of how students change over the year?

Hold your nerve!

All this may simply mean that I am a terrible teacher – that I don’t know how to teach coursework effectively, do not have the ability to inspire my students from the off and make too many assumptions about what they do and do not know when I am planning. I suspect, however, that I am not alone; I certainly hope not. What I hope instead is that every teacher can recognise that whilst it’s good to reflect, great to adapt and make changes to your teaching, it is also important to stick to your guns and persevere with what you set out to do. If you don’t, how will you ever know whether what your doing is making a difference or not?

Thanks for reading


2 thoughts on “Holding your nerve – the missing element of great teaching?

  1. Hi Phil,

    An interesting read – thank you! I think sometimes the issue is compounded further by QA at senior team, which does encourage reflective practice and can generally create an overwhelming feeling of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not doing enough’, especially with staff who are, as you say, less experienced. It is absolutely about holding your nerve, but also knowing when to let something go!

    That aside, I’d be very keen to know what you did/ used with year 11 to support their understanding of images; I have a middle ability class who are terrified of question 2! Any suggestions would be appreciated!



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