Holding your nerve – the missing element of great teaching?

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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

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What blogging has done for teacher CPD

In this, my first blog, I thought I would reflect on how I came to blogging, and in this and later blogs consider some of the ways I see the sharing of ideas and approaches will help inform my practice, and the practice of the teachers in my department.

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In ten years of teaching I have seen a great deal of change in the educational landscape, perhaps no more so than of late under the stewardship of the current Secretary of State for Education.

Probably the most significant change, however, is the advent of teachers using social media exchange ideas, views and resources. The proliferation of thoughtful bloggers and Twitter users like @HuntingEnglish, @Learningspy and @realGeoffBarton (all of whom I admire greatly) has probably done more for the CPD of those teachers lucky enough to follow them than any other kind of more traditional INSET. Indeed, in the 10 months or so that I have actively been reading blogs and Twitter feeds, I have learnt a great deal that I might otherwise have missed – from current ideas about good practice to educational research and policy.

I remember how things were very different. In my NQT year, rather unfortunately, my inspiring Head of Department left on maternity leave at Christmas and was not replaced. In a school with challenging behaviour and generally low standards of achievement I was left to my own devices, teaching two year 11 groups without any real accountability or guidance. It was pretty much a case of picking up a set of books you liked and teaching them to the kids. No target grades, no expected progress and intervention still very much an abstract noun.

Fortunately, I think I did ok, and in a perverse kind of way I actually thrived on the autonomy. I enjoyed the sense of responsibility in the midst of adversity, and the ‘in at the deep end approach’ definitely helped me to get to grips with managing poor behaviour and understanding how to design effective lessons. The rest of English team were very supportive, even if there was no distinct leadership. To be honest, I am not too sure how well I would have taken to being coached, or how responsive I would have been to other people’s input into my teaching. It’s shameful, I admit, but nevertheless true. 

Much of my flippant attitude was probably shaped by my experiences of CPD, or what often used to pass for INSET at that time: a senior teacher (or worse, an outside speaker) who would proselytize to the staff on any one or more of the following: literacy across the curriculum, behaviour management, Ofsted preparation, mind-mapping, restorative justice, using interactive whiteboards effectively (remember them?), literacy across the curriculum, emotional Intelligence, multiple intelligence and literacy across the curriculum. In short, the planned professional training that I received was poor, and any progress that I made in my teaching was more to do with supportive colleagues, fantastic kids and perhaps my own reflective nature – never feeling like I had done enough!

 

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Now, I’m not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with all or any of the above INSET topics; most of these areas are important drivers of effective learning and pastoral care in any school.

If they are done properly, that is.

I think the problem, or rather my retrospective reading of it, lay in the approach taken, one which I suspect was replicated elsewhere up and down the country – a speaker with an air of knowledge, but more often than not none of the actual substance – who would run through endless slides with lots of pseudo research and pithy quotes. I realise now that many (though perhaps not all) of these speakers were also more often than not passing off material that was not their own: ideas, resources and strategies that they had garnered from external courses, or perhaps filtered down through documentation passed on from central government via the LEA.

I remember on one occasion entering an Assistant Head’s office and being overwhelmed by the amount of folders ranged across the shelves, thick white ones with the yellow and blue insignia to denote the National Strategy. It seemed to me that senior teachers had access to all the information – research, good practice, strategies and resources – whilst us inexperienced teachers, or those without responsibility, were left to receive new ideas and initiatives second hand. We were like worshippers before the Reformation: listening compliantly to the interpretation (and selection) of God’s word from a clergy seemingly much better versed in Latin than us.

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SLT and middle leaders were thus the gatekeepers of educational knowledge, whether through their professional experience gleaned from current research, policy findings, Ofsted Survey reports (or whatever they were called then) and good practice. Ordinary class teachers were left out of the conversation, and quite often dictated to, rather than part of the dialogue. A lot of CPD was therefore predicated on the sometimes too narrow range of teachers’ own experiences, or worse on unverifiable and disputable research.

With the advent of blogging and Twitter all that has changed. Teachers – whether those training to be teachers, or others far longer in the tooth – now have access to a wealth of information that can help them improve their understanding and practice of teaching. Teachers, of all ranges of responsibility and levels of experience, are part of the conversation, shaping ideas and often building consensus derived from people who actually know what their talking about: who are teaching in classrooms and working with students on a day to day basis. There is clearly a place for the ‘expert’, and the senior teacher who draws from his or her own experiences to bring an aspect of teaching and learning into sharper focus. This is fine, but it can’t be all.

Blogging and Twitter have forced a seismic change in the way in which schools deliver INSET. The ability for professionals to challenge received wisdom, to get to the source of what they are told and interpret the Word for themselves has signalled the death knell for the day-long INSET day, and the being spoken at approach that was once the norm. Action research groups, innovative Twilight sessions and new ways in which teachers can meet and share (such as Teachmeet) have led to a much-needed overhaul into how we develop ourselves as a profession. It is now much harder for senior leadership teams to be complacent about teacher development, or to trust in the tried and trusted approaches of the past. And rightly so, since professional capital (a phrase borrowed from Andy Hargreaves) is the key driver to raising standards of teaching and learning in education today.

With social media there is no hierarchy. An NQT can freely exchange views with a senior leader, which can only be a good thing for everyone.

Even when there is disagreement, this still seems to me to be extremely productive in helping us reflect on our beliefs and what we do when we teach young people. That is surely the ultimate goal for all of us.