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The melting pot

I tend not to leave required reading to take in one of my posts, but this LA Times article by teacher Ellie Herman had me nodding my head and scratching it in equal measure. While the settings of our respective classrooms are very different, there are many things in Ellie’s classroom that we will all have experienced – the keen student with additional needs so significant that they preclude him understanding the notes he so dutifully takes down, the students suffering as a result of poverty, the angry ADD-fuelled (or Ritalin-addled) kid… they’re in my classroom too.

The general feeling in my former staff room was that the incredible melting pots that are modern classrooms are becoming increasingly difficult to manage due to the huge amount of variety in our students that was either not present, or not identified, in decades past. Teaching is becoming harder, and there seem to be no signs of it stopping.

A couple of months ago, we had an excellent bit of INSET training on the topic of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – well worth reading up on for anyone who hasn’t heard of it, but here are the Cliffs Notes:

  • When a woman drinks during pregnancy it can cause significant problems in the development of the baby.
  • The amount of alcohol does not matter, nor does the point during the term of pregnancy.
  • As a result, some women are unaware they are pregnant and continue drinking.
  • The main effect of FAS is damage to the central nervous system – especially the brain.

This isn’t a particularly new condition, but only in the last ten years have significant numbers of children with the condition survived early infancy. As a result these children are now filtering through into our high schools, adding to the already simmering pot mentioned above. The issues caused by FAS can manifest as lack of impulse control, retention of memory, and inability to focus, and like autism, FAS is a spectrum disorder that can range from mild to serious.

We live in complex times, with few simple problems, and yet we as the professional at the front of the classroom are expected to be the ones with the answers. Armed only with a data sheet that may (though may not) have more detail than the occasional scant word or acronym – SA, SA+, STAT, EAL, BEH – isn’t hugely helpful.Also, FAS and other developmental syndromes including autism, Asperger’s and others do sometimes go undiagnosed, so we are also to be on the look out for students with problems that haven’t yet been identified.

Okay, so I realise I started out with reference to an article entitled “the myth of the extraordinary teacher”, and now I’m talking about special educational needs, but my point is twofold:

  1. Teaching is hard. Anyone who claims anything different either doesn’t know enough to form that kind of opinion, or aren’t particularly good at it. It’s a constant balancing act, rarely with fewer than 25 variables sat before you, plus pressure from different sides when it comes to measuring outcomes of whatever stripe.
  2. In answer to the original article, I don’t believe these settings do preclude excellence. We perhaps have to alter our definition of the word – academic excellence is not the only kind, after all.

Measuring time, by aussiegall on Flickr

Quantifying success

In order to gauge the relative success or failure of anything – a movie, a car, or a school – the first step is to select an appropriate yardstick. None of these three examples can be definitively compared with other movies, cars or schools using one criteria alone. Using box office takings alone would place Avatar comfortably at the top of the list, while The Shawshank Redemption & The Godfather share the top spot on IMDb’s Top 250 chart (Avatar rolls in a little later at #184). Low fuel consumption may be a perfectly reasonable criteria in the desirability of a family car, but is unlikely to be at the top of the list of priorities for a Formula 1 team. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the idea that quantifying & measuring the relative success or failure of a school, or a teacher, is any simpler than either of these examples.

I used to teach a truly exceptional boy with Asperger’s syndrome whose fixation was politics, but for him at that time the sum total of politics was contained in the history of the Labour party from the 1960s onwards. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert when it comes to politics, but I knew enough to have some incredibly entertaining arguments with this young man who put every bit of his highly-specialised knowledge to good use. After a few conversations I wanted to see how well he could write, so I asked him once to write me an op ed piece on anything he liked. Approximately 500 words, on any topic provided he cared enough about it to form a compelling argument.

He came back to me a couple of days later with a short essay on the unfair system of education in the UK entitled “An argument in favour of abolishing British grammar schools”. As the benefactor of a grammar school education myself, I was delighted with the topic. I went off to read it, scrawling notes in the margins ready to lock horns with him when we next met. In this extremely well-written but entirely one-sided diatribe, he explained that wealth was no basis of selection for an education, and that rather than having a selection of centres for academic excellence scattered around the country, the focus of the government should be on encouraging the same standard throughout.

We talked at some length about how his argument had some flaws, not least of which was the fact he himself went to a highly successful academically-focused high school (a former grammar school itself) based largely on his postcode, which just happened to be located well within the leafy suburb of the catchment area – a postcode his parents secured through buying a house well beyond the means of many others, while I secured a spot in a grammar school not based on the personal wealth of my parents but my performance in an entrance exam, but the point is this: the government, both national and local, is measuring the success of schools in the same terms as a then-15-year-old boy talking only from his personal experience of education.

When I compare him to our current Secretary of State for Education, I at least feel confident that the boy has expanded upon his ideas since leaving school. With Michael Gove, I’m not so sure…

A good friend of mine works in a Pupil Referral Unit, the success of which is measured using exactly the same measure as my former school – the percentage of students achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. To provide some context, the students at this PRU have been permanently excluded from at least two high schools. The traditional educational system hasn’t worked for them – twice. So why then is the last resort being expected to operate in the same way as these schools? Last year, of the 11 final year leavers, every single one of them is now either attending college or in employment.

That is a huge achievement, and a testament to the hard work going on there – they take persistent non-attenders, students with alcohol and drug problems, and often histories of violence, and educate them. Not merely walk them through qualifications and present them with a handful of certificates at the end, but teach them how to function in a world they haven’t yet managed to be a part of.

Success like this rarely happens in education. Ramparts should be added to the school building purely to allow the staff and students to trumpet their extraordinary success from them. However, the staff of this unit, and many like it around the country, have been repeatedly told that under the new Ofsted criteria they cannot be graded as anything other than satisfactory. Adequate. Passable.

Talk about a vote of confidence.

How can we be great when we don’t know what great is?

I was recently asked to be host to two enthusiastic trainee teachers who were in school for a taste of what teaching is all about, and by the end of the day I feel fairly confident that they had had as comprehensive an experience as could be expected – they were whisked from lesson to lesson with barely chance to catch their breath, they had an undue burden placed upon them by an assistant head (to corral year 7 students at the sports day in the afternoon,) had just enough time over coffee in the staffroom to complain that that wasn’t what they were here for, and were saved from it by a colleague who due to his new job no longer cared about annoying SLT. Cough.

At the end of the day, we sat for a couple of hours discussing what it was to be a good teacher. I was surprised to hear that while mine wasn’t their first placement school, they hadn’t yet seen an enthusiastic teacher – the teaching they had seen thus far had been largely “Right, carry on with coursework,” with very little further input. That wasn’t quite the experience they had with me, though I don’t usually end my lessons with a Lady Gaga song. Honest.

I remember Googling to find answers to the question “what are the qualities of a great teacher?” when I was training for part of an assignment. There are so many bullet-point lists, PowerPoint presentations and webpages on the topic, but none of them can sufficiently answer the question because of that difficult quantifier – Great. Extraordinary. Exceptional. Outstanding.

Okay, maybe not the last one, but the others are incredibly difficult to quantify, describe or explain by using anything other than excessive hand actions and descriptive terms like je ne sais quoi. For any new teachers looking for advice, I can’t help you beyond this:

A great teacher is first a good teacher, and a good teacher is first an adequate teacher. Look at the standards for an exhaustive list of the kinds of things you should be aiming for, but I’d boil it down to knowledge, communication, relationships, versatility & resilience.

Everyone has to have the first two under their belt, but the standards only go so far as to describe subject knowledge. You absolutely need to know your subject, but don’t be confined by it. The best experiences I’ve had in the classroom and out of hours in teaching students have been about all manner of far-flung things, not just ICT – my Classics Club has been one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in my career, but you’re never going to see “Is able to teach Ancient Greek” on the specification for an ICT teaching post. If you want to be a great teacher, know as much as you can about as many different things as you can. If you don’t love to learn, how can you expect to get others to?

Communication is a big deal. Not just being able to, but being able to tweak whatever needs changing when talking to different audiences. Differentiation is all about communication – if your favoured method of imparting information isn’t working, what else do you have in your arsenal to fall back on? Discount nothing – glove puppetry, mime or interpretive dance are just as welcome in my classroom as chalk & talk.

For me, the final three are where the real differences lie for me between okay, good and great.

Relationships are the cornerstone. The first thing to realise is you’re teaching kids, and you’re going to get some fooling around from time to time. A solid teacher-student relationship based on mutual respect is a sure-fire way to sort them out easily, but forging that relationship isn’t easy – it takes time, consistency, and interest on your part. You can’t fake it, so don’t try – I had plenty of teachers who taught me very well indeed but could scarcely remember my face once I’d left. It’s not a problem.

Versatility is also a big deal. Delivering an assembly is very different to delivering a lesson, and it never fails to get me hot under the collar… having my colleagues lining the sides of the hall, spectating, has always put me off kilter, but it gets better with practice. I’m also no gifted athlete, but that doesn’t stop the PE cover lessons coming in… roll with the punches or they’ll knock you on your arse.

Resilience is needed to get yourself back up when you inevitably do get knocked down. Whether it’s because of a truly awful lesson where the kids just didn’t get it (we all have them), a bollocking from one of the higher-ups, or just the mounting pressure, you need to bounce back from it. Teaching kicks the shit out of you sometimes, and in my three short years I’ve come to understand why so many burn out. If you truly care about being a great teacher, the last thing you’ll let it effect is your teaching, but letting the pressure take its toll on everything else – social life, friends, family – isn’t a long-term solution.

To conclude…

One final caveat I’d add to all of the advice above is that it works for me. Not all of it will work for you, but some if it will. I’d also add I’m neither the voice of sage experience nor do I consider myself a great teacher, but some of my students do, and compliments like that don’t come along often in teaching, so take them when you can.

To sum up what has been one of the most rambling posts I’ve ever written (I’d apologise, but I enjoyed writing it too much), assessing the quality of a teacher requires the same kinds of differentiation we assess in lesson observations – by outcome, by task & by input. This is unlikely to happen while the people at the very top are so feeble-minded that they can’t look beyond their own experiences as a universal, one-size-fits-all education, but 2015 isn’t all that far away… Surely they can’t do too much damage if we ignore as much as possible in the meantime?

The idea that extraordinary teachers are a myth is bullshit. Yes, we have a lot to manage in the classroom, and nobody can do it all, all of the time. But the truth is that even the best of us have bad lessons, bad days, bad years…

When you have the respect of your students & your colleagues, you’re doing a good job. The best teachers I’ve come across don’t need to keep looking up for any further affirmation than that.