January 19, 2010

Sometimes it seems as if a teacher is somebody who sets activities for children and acts as a substitute parent. However a lot of teachers are actually able to teach and interested in teaching. By this, I mean they are able to explain a subject so that those who listen and follow instructions will learn. If a school has recruited a substantial body of such people, there is a great danger that

a)      management will face pressure to help with the process of making students listen and follow instructions


b)      results will be far higher for those teachers than for the activity-setting nannies who make up so much of the school management structure.

Inevitably, the culture of mediocrity requires that these teachers who are interested in teaching be prevented from doing so.

Here are the standard forms of obstruction:

1)      Low expectations. If students aren’t used to listening, following instructions or working hard it takes a lot of time and effort to get them to do so. It can be done by teachers who have established themselves over several months, or even years, but if the expectations are left low enough then, at the very least, new teachers will struggle to teach their classes.

2)      Empowerment of students. If students believe that they have a right to an opinion about everything, including how they are taught, then every instruction will be faced with an argument or a need to be explained. Time is wasted on pointless questions.

Q: “Why do we have to know this?”

A: “Because literacy is important in our society”.

Q: “Why can’t I sit where I like?”

A: “Because you won’t be able to see the board from the stock cupboard”.

Q: “Why are you blaming me?”

A: “Because I saw you attacking Scott right in front of me. In fact you still have your hands around his throat.”

3)      Timetabling. Even the most effective teachers will have their power drained by being given a non-subject such as PSHE to teach. Similarly splitting classes between different teachers and different rooms can obstruct routines and the establishing of good behaviour. Classes can also be located in inconvenient places. Science and drama really do need a specialist type of classroom. Any lesson can be made more difficult to teach by being placed in the canteen (I’m not joking, some schools do this.) A classroom where all the tables have been grouped together into “islands” so that many students are facing each other not the teacher is another obvious obstacle.

4)      Curriculum. The National Curriculum has often been seen as a burden as it reduces the freedom for teachers to pursue the topics that are of most interest or importance. For most teachers this is, of course, complete arse. If there isn’t national guidance as to what to teach then instead of freedom a teacher is likely to be faced with impositions from another level: a far less accountable level. The National Curriculum will usually set objectives to be taught. Incompetent  managers are more likely to set “projects”:  lengthy, supposedly interesting, but apparently pointless activities that are meant to take weeks even though all the actual learning content could be delivered in ten minutes if anyone could be bothered to actually teach. It is far better to have your curriculum set by a bureaucrat than an incompetent teacher. The bureaucrat will at least focus on aims not activities and leave you a reasonable choice of method.

5)      Imposed teaching techniques. This is the big one. This is why many teachers who can teach feel they need to hide it. This is the requirement that you do something other than teach. Threats, inspections, formal observations and informal pressures are used to make teachers: do group-work, play games, set investigations, hold discussions, ask “open-ended” (i.e. vague) questions, organise role-playing, or produce display work regardless of the subject or topic at hand. Part of this is just a refusal to acknowledge that different disciplines require different techniques. Drama requires group work, mathematics doesn’t. English requires some discussion, science doesn’t. ICT requires computers, French doesn’t. Sometimes there are arbitrary rules about what you must or must not do:

“Don’t use these worksheets they have too many questions on them”.

“Don’t speak or, in any way, instruct the class for more than 12 minutes in every hour”

“Write a paragraph on the board every lesson to explain what the learning objectives are, how they correspond to levels and grades, and how students  will be able to judge their achievement against three different levels”.

My favourite example of a teacher who couldn’t teach obstructing those who could was the middle manager working in a maths department who told their department that you could learn anything from doing five questions, and so it was unnecessary to ever set more than that.

6)      Resources. You can make teaching difficult simply by refusal to supply appropriate resources. Some resources provided are simply at the wrong pitch and cannot be used without causing confusion or wasting time with repetition of primary school work. Some crap textbooks are full of suggestions for group-work but nothing that could actually be used to develop the appropriate skills. Sometimes there are simply too few books to go round, even in an era where spending on schools has massively increased.  Sometimes the books are stuck in a cupboard on the other side of the school. The worst examples of this, though, are usually ICT related. Despite very little evidence of any advantage provided by interactive whiteboards, many classrooms had their conventional whiteboards or blackboards ripped out and replaced with an interactive whiteboard which a lack of training, a technical glitch, or a shortage of software or laptops, or other required technology, then rendered unusable.

7)      Confusion. Even if somebody knows how to teach, if they are inexperienced or lack confidence it is easy to convince then that they don’t. This is done mainly through the use of Three Letter Acronyms: “Yes, your students learnt and enjoyed that lesson, but it was a terribly lesson, there simply wasn’t enough AFL, APP, BLP, P4C or CSI. Next time do more groupwork.”

8)      Mixed ability classes.




  1. “even in an era where spending on schools has massively increased.”

    I think – and you imply this with the whiteboards – that the spending is largely wasted. You see countless schools with ridiculous numbers of computers, invariably badly used, and not enough other resources. I suspect this is due to ring fencing and trendy schemes and other such things.

    • It hasn’t all been wasted, some of it has gone into my pocket. IT initiatives often stand out (alongside Local Authority consultants) as a waste of money, but most of the money has just gone into the system and has been wasted no more, and no less, than any other money in a failed system.

  2. Hurrah!

    I am doing my PGCE PCET (I dont want to teach in a school, before someone starts to comment on that) and the amount we are being taught about group work and how I shouldnt write on the board or talk to my students for any length of time is amazing. I get so frustrated. I was told my lesson plans were boring as it said the activity was to read the play (I am doing theatre A level, but at some points we have to read the bloody play) I can’t do a practical lesson for every part of the play, otherwise we will never get through it. The english lit students were told the same.

    There are endless examples I could give you of this, but it seems like the focus of my pgce is producing 4 sides of A4 lesson plans. Becuase you all do that when you are teaching full time – right?

    Thanks for making me realise its not just me who gets so frustrated

  3. This a brilliant post, one of the best edublog posts I have ever read. Everything you have written here strikes a very familiar chord with me and I agree completely with the eight obstructions that you have highlighted.

    I would also add constant, unnecessary interference from senior and middle management as well as the big ones for me: Too much focus on data and data analysis; Paperwork, paperwork, replicated paperwork.

  4. I apologise for having timetabled lessons into non-specialist rooms in the past. This happens usually because curriculum planners produce their plan late, haven’t checked them for practicality so there is no time to change the plan (which may, for instance, force you to have three Drama classes on at once when you only have two rooms and two teachers, hence not only the room is a non-specialist…) and easier to find a room, any room, to put the class in and a body to put in front of them. Often the non-specialist body turns out to be the timetabler herself…leading by example so that when the second problem arises you can say “Well I wouldn’t ask you to do something I wouldn’t do myself.”

  5. Absolutely true – every word. I’m going to put the link to this post on my blog.

  6. […] good teaching? One good reason is that there are so many damn things in the way. Please read Obstructions from the excellent blog called Scenes from the Battleground.” Published […]

  7. […] term for me. Nothing new, pretty much the sort of thing I was writing about years ago (for instance here and here), although that in itself is a sign there has been no Govian revolution in schools. […]

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