Lessons from the classroom

Next year will mark 10 years since I embarked on my PGCE.  In 2009 I was an overenthusiastic 21-year-old with an romantic view of what teaching would be like. Since then, I’ve taught 100s of children and held a variety of positions from hapless NQT to SLT. Now seems as a good a time as any to reflect on the last decade and share some of the lesson that I’ve learnt.

1. Keep it simple

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that, 75% of the time, a knowledgeable, passionate teacher, a flip chart and a projector hooked up to a PC are all the resources required to deliver a really good lesson. In the early days of my career, I would spend hours cutting out (and laminating!) endless resources: cards to sort, spinners to generate numbers, bingo boards and cards with Velcro, word wheels etc… These resources created hours of extra work for myself and would often be used once or twice, adding very little value to the learning. However I continued to make them as I was frequently told this way of teaching was “outstanding.” The more laminated shiny resources – the better I thought.

Thankfully we don’t grade lessons any more and it would seem the general consensus about what makes “good teaching” is changing. It’s less about (If it hasn’t changed in your school, it might be time to consider changing schools.)

Don’t over complicate it. Just planning, marking and delivering good lessons takes around 40 hours a week so don’t add unnecessary tasks to your workload. Decide what it is you want your class to learn and then think about the simplest way to teach it. Which leads me nicely onto my next lesson…

2. It’s OK to teach from the front of the room.

I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing this ten years ago. “Talk and chalk”, as it is often called, was seen as old-fashioned, boring and slightly draconian. I’d been lead to believe that good teaching meant letting children discover things for themselves (using the carefully cut out and laminated cards mentioned in the previous paragraph.)  Depending on which head teacher you ask, good teaching also meat: always working with a guided group, never using worksheets, never being at your desk, teaching using a “learning carousel.”

Only in the last 8 weeks of my career has a member of SLT EVER said to me, “It’s OK to stand at the front of your classroom and teach.”

“It’s not a choice between the two, but if it were the case that you could only ever teach through standing at the front and talking to your class or only teach by being the facilitator for pupils learning independently then standing at the front and talking would have the greater impact. They’d learn more.” 

teaching
Top tip: make sure there are students in the classroom before you start teaching.

I was struck by the fact that in a decade of INSETS, training, lesson observation feedback, pupil progress meetings, CPD sessions and courses nobody has ever said that me before. It’s not even been presented as an option. The idea you can just stand at the front of the classroom and tell your pupils the things they need to know shouldn’t be a  revelation but it really was. And best of it all it really works.

 

Small caveat: that’s not to say my class don’t do group work, role play, independent research or inquiry or have opportunities to create and explore. With careful planning and scaffolding, these will always have a place in my class.

 

3. There will always be lessons that go wrong

Like most things in life, teaching gets easier the more you do it. After a few years you find your feet and it everything takes less time. That said, whether you have been teaching for 2 years or 20, there will always be lessons that go wrong.

fraction
It happens to the best of us.

Whether it’s technology failing you, or you find yourself fifteen minutes into explaining how to multiply fractions using modelled examples and simple steps but your class are looking at you like you’re speaking a different language.

 

Lessons like this do not mean you’re a bad teacher. They happen to everyone and as a profession we’re fairly self-deprecating so don’t be afraid to say if a lesson didn’t work out. Have a think about what went wrong, ask for advice and plan to tackle it again tomorrow.

4. That I’d been doing differentiation wrong

You know how right now “mastery” and “depth” are buzzwords in education at the moment? Well In 2009 it was  differentiation. That meant up to five different activities centered around one objective (and in some cases separate objectives.) There were so many problems with this. Firstly, if you only ever give you put all your “less able” pupils on a “less able” table and give them easier work then they are never going to catch up with the pupils that are “more able.” Secondly there was the awkward situation of trying to divide the class into ability tables. You’d end up with three tables with a wide range of ability that you’d put together as “middle ability” and given them “middle ability work” (whatever that is.) And finally there was the issue of workload: planning for this took hours and you’d find yourself saying things like, “What activity could the tops do?” rather than, “What do I want my class to learn this lesson?”

Dealing with a range of abilities is a huge challenge but now I stick to the same objective for everyone and my differentiation is the support each child requires to meet that objective. Set the bar high and get every child over it.

5. A change of school is as good as a rest

As someone that has walked away believing wholeheartedly I would never teacher again, trust me, a change of school can change everything. There are whole host of factors that can push teaching over the line from a challenging job to an impossible one: pupil behaviour, pressure for results, the fear that you’re not doing well enough. Nearly all of these factors fall at the feet of your head teacher.  You’re never going to find a head teacher whose every decision you agree with – that isn’t the aim. What you need is a head teacher whose vision you buy into and who you agree with on the “big stuff” e.g. behavior policy, monitoring, curriculum, teacher autonomy etc..

So don’t stay miserable – make a change. It can be all to easy to stay and moan but I find it baffling when a member of staff stays at a school year after year, moaning about every decision the head teacher makes. The times that I’ve found myself being the “moaner” I’ve taken it as a sign that the school wasn’t the right place for me and I’ve left.


“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”

Albert Einstein

Albert sums it up quite nicely here. For everything I learn, I am all too aware of everything I have yet to learn. There is every chance that in a few years I’ll look back at this post and cringe at my ignorance of naivety but that’s OK. As teachers, we get to start afresh every year: we get the chance to reflect on our mistakes, try out new ideas and hone our practice.

One of the great pleasures of teaching is watching young people exercise their freedom to learn, grown and change. It is a freedom that we as teachers should not deny ourselves.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the classroom

  1. This is an interesting article. It is true that when we first start teaching we try out ideas and see what works..if we are fortunate enough to have the space and time to do so. Often however we find that difficult. Possibly because the students we are teaching are demanding in terms of their behaviour or we are too afraid or inexperienced to try new things. It is a fact that most teachers tend to teach in the way they remember how they were taught. Presumably how they remember the successful teachers which obviously suited their style of learning or suited their personality or they just liked the teacher! Then, of course we are bombarded with ideas of how to teach best! These tend to go in and out of fashion too. As you say it was all about differentiation and it has also been about group work, ability setting mixed age classes, family grouping, gender differences etc. etc. The truth is there is not one method. There are as many methods as learning contexts and styles of learning. So the best teaching is and, I guess, always has been, one to one.. unfortunately this is only affordable to the very rich or Oxford and Cambridge students! So what to do with a class of mixed ability students all wanting something different? In my experience, one teacher is never going to suit everyone all the time! Many of us have lost sleep trying to do this and beating ourselves up when it didn’t work… My advice is to find time to reflect on your teaching at best find a partner to talk it through but beware the glazed look on your partners face and know when to stop and just go out for a drink…
    So, teaching in front of the class works! Well, as you may recall, I did it and I convinced myself that it worked too. Sometimes I was lucky enough to get positive feedback from the learners too, a rare treat! Hank you for another thought provoking blog!😎

    Like

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