Posts Tagged ‘teaching’



November 15, 2008

Scene 1: PSHE training

“Okay, now we have finished our icebreakers let’s talk about the next unit in the program. If you look at page 7 of your booklets, you can see where you should be leading your form group. The definition of success that you want them to arrive at after discussion is ‘trying your best to achieve a goal’. Yes, what is it Andrew?”

That’s not a definition of success.


You could try your best at something and not achieve it, I could try all I liked but I’m not going to run a four minute mile, or give birth to twins.

“Well, yes, I see your point, but I think the really important thing to get across here is that if you do try your hardest you have succeeded.”

You’ve succeeded at trying, but you haven’t necessarily succeeded at whatever it is you were trying to do.

“I think you are being a bit too traditional here, Andrew.”

But what if one of my form group points out that this isn’t the definition of success?

“I’m sure they won’t, they are only year 8.”

Scene 2: PSHE Lesson

Okay everyone, that was interesting to hear what you thought about success. Now let me tell you what the book says about success. It says that success is ‘trying your best to achieve a goal’

“Sir, sir”

Yes, Jade?

“That’s not what success is. You could try your best at something and not achieve it.”

Er… yes. Well like I said that is what the book says, we don’t have to agree with the book.

“But it’s stupid. It just isn’t what the word means. You can’t go around just changing what words mean.”

Er … yes, I certainly see your point and have to say I do agree with it. I think perhaps we just need to consider what success means in our own lives.

“Sir, sir”

Yes, Jade?

“Why do we have to discuss our own lives? Isn’t that just interfering in our own personal stuff? Why is my private life any business of anyone else.”

Well, the school is responsible for your emotional well-being, Jade.

“What’s that?”

How you feel. Whether you’re happy.

“But that’s mad. How I feel is my own business and nothing to do with the school.”

Well I see your point. You might want to try getting elected to the school council next year and making that point there to the people who decide what we do in PSHE.

“I’m making this point to you, Sir”

I’m afraid it’s not up to me. I don’t choose to teach PSHE, to be honest I’d much rather be teaching my own subject”.

“You’re good at that, sir. You’re a good teacher. So why do you have to do this PSHE crap? It’s just interfering in our own private business for no reason.”

Jade, I… Oh is that the time? Everybody, pack up quietly and hand your posters in on the way out.


Lesson Observations

June 8, 2008

The activities of OFSTED and the rise of “performance management” has led to an obsession with lesson observations to judge the quality of teaching. There is a big problem with this. The quality of teaching is impossible to judge objectively. That’s not to say there aren’t good lessons or bad lessons. It’s not to say that it is impossible to judge which is which. However, such judgements are incredibly subjective and are based on numerous implicitly held values and prejudices.

Sometimes observers do try to get round this. Often they look to see how well the teacher fulfilled a list of criteria. These criteria tends to be things that are easily looked for but don’t actually tell us much about learning. Did the teacher state the lesson objective? Did the teacher set homework? Did the teacher describe what level the work is at? Was there some group work in there? Did the teacher produce a suitably comprehensive lesson plan? None of these are actually related to the quality of teaching. What is more, the school can become more and more demanding in the list of things it wishes to see. One school I worked in decided lesson objectives simply weren’t enough. There should be a “WALT” (We Are Looking To) -a short description of what the students were hoping to have schieved by the end of the lesson – and a “WILF”. WILF turned out to be a description of three different levels of achievement and the academic grades they corresponded to, all of which were to be explained to the entire class. This was promoted as something that would help the school pass OFSTED. When OFSTED did arrive they ended up complaining that the teachers spent too much time talking to the class. Nobody in management seemed to realise that this might not be unconnected to requiring all teachers to describe the WALT and WILF every lesson.

Of course, more considered observers realise that such a checklist of rituals is meaningless and serves no purpose other than to create stress for teachers. The alternative way to objectively measure the quality of the lesson is to monitor the students. Ask them what they have learnt. Ask them whether they are enjoying the lesson. Nine times out of ten this is a more effective judge of teaching quality than ticking boxes on the checklist, although personally I can’t see what enjoyment has to do with it. However, there is one little difficulty: Students choose what they want to learn and what they want to enjoy. The same lesson can have a completely different result due to student attitude. If you’ve ever had to teach the same lesson to two different (but equal ability) classes then you will know that a lesson that’s like a scene from “Dead Poets’ Society” with one class can be like a scene from “Apocalypse Now” with the next. There is no rhyme or reason to what students say they learnt and enjoyed. The same student who demanded computer work on Monday can be complaining “why do we always do work on the computer?” on Wednesday. The same student who told you “I get it now, you’re a lot better than our old teacher” last week will be telling you “you don’t teach properly” this week. An experienced member of staff might know which students are worth asking. (At this point I smile at the thought of the year 8 girl who, on my last job interview, loudly and somewhat implausibly told the headteacher of the interviewing school how she’d learnt lots and really enjoyed my lesson). Often the observers aren’t a good judge. I bet I’m not the first teacher to have a run of “good”, or better, observations broken by an observer who only bothered to ask Jordan, sat at the back colouring in the front of his exercise book after his last teacher refused to have him, how the lesson was going.

Now when we are honest and admit we can only make subjective judgements of teaching then we often get far more out of observations. Observing lessons is an art, not a science, and a skilled practitioner of that art can be a great help. Unfortunately, even the best of us have their prejudices. A teacher will respond well to activities they would enjoy teaching themselves and badly to ones that they wouldn’t. You will get a lot more positive feedback from a teacher if you have learnt what they like and endeavour to provide it. Relationships also cloud judgement, with teachers being more positive about teachers they know well. I have always found my lessons rated far more highly in my second year at a school than in the first. Mertha, my Head of Department at Stafford Grove School even watched the same lesson twice, criticising it heavily when she saw it the first time, and praising it highly the second time.

Of course, the key problem here is that something that should be informal – the monitoring and support of teachers – has become formal. As ever the education bureaucracy has decreed that good practice only counts if it generates a paper trail. I welcome any teacher coming into my classroom, but the moment they are bringing forms to fill in, they have ceased to be anything but a nuisance.



May 3, 2008

Form time. Not long ago.

“This is boring. I hate form time” said Ryan.

“It’s St George’s Day today” I replied, changing the subject.

“What?” asked Ryan, “Who’s St. George?”

“He’s the Patron Saint of England” replied Jade. “He fought a dragon”

“Here, let me put his Wikipedia page on the whiteboard” I said, “There you go, it says he is also the patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia,”

“This is boring” said Ryan.

“He was a Greek speaker but was born in a place that is now in Turkey” I said.

“Why don’t we have our own saint?” asked Holly.

“It’s typical” complained Julie. “We always have to put up with all these foreigners”.

Ibrahim and Mohsin look uncomfortable. Yusef doesn’t react as his English isn’t good enough to have picked up on what was said.

“I don’t think that’s terribly fair”, I said.

“Is he real?” said Holly.

A short conversation starts up quietly in the back of the room about whether dragons exist. Somebody claims they have them in China, but then looks embarrassed.

“We’re not sure if he existed, but obviously he didn’t really fight a dragon” I said.

“This is all nine thousand years ago” shouted Ryan. “This is boring”.

“It’s not nine thousand years ago” yelled Jade, “That would be before Christ”

“What I don’t understand” said Julie, “is how there can be people before Christ”.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well if God made the world, how come there were people and dinosaurs before Christ?”

“There’s a difference between the birth of Christ and the creation of the world.”

“Yeah” interrupted Jade, “But how come there were dinosaurs before Christ?”

“Like I said, the birth of Christ isn’t when the world began. The world had already been around for a while.”

“But how come there were dinosaurs millions of years before?”

“Sorry, what are you asking? I don’t see why there can’t be dinosaurs before Jesus. Christians believe Jesus was born a long time after people first appeared”

“No, you’re not listening” said Jade rudely, “how come there were dinosaurs before there were people?”

“I’m not sure what you are asking. Why shouldn’t there be dinosaurs before there were people?”

“I mean if God created the world, how come the world and dinosaurs existed before there were people?” asked Jade.

“I’m still not sure what you mean. Are you asking about the story of Adam and Eve and asking how, if God created people at the start of the universe then how could dinosaurs have existed for thousands of years beforehand?”

“Who’s Adam and Eve?” said Ryan.

“You know, from the book of Genesis”, I said.

“What’s the Book Of Genesis”, said Ryan.

“The first book of the Bible” I said.

“The Bible’s boring” said Ryan.

“Sir, sir” interrupted Jade. “I’m not talking about that. I just don’t see how God can have created the Earth if there weren’t people until millions of years after the Earth was created.

“Hang on”, I said as the penny dropped. “Do you think God is a person?”

“God’s boring” said Ryan. “I hate God”.

“Yes.” Said Jade,

“I think you’ll find people don’t think God is a person like that.”

Ibrahim and Mohsin are now rolling their eyes.

“Then why do you see pictures of him” said Julie.

“What pictures?” I said.

“You know. He has a big white beard.”

“Oh” I said. “I don’t think that’s how Christians, or other people who believe in God, actually think of God”.

“This is boring” said Ryan.

Then I paused.

“You are in year eight. You have been doing RE for a year and a half, just at this school. Why are you are asking me this? Why not your RE teacher?”

“We don’t learn anything in RE” complained Julie.

“The teacher’s boring” said Ryan “I hate him”.

“We just did one religion for ages.” This was Connor’s first contribution to the discussion.

“What religion?” I asked.

“The Muslim one” said Julie.

“No we didn’t” said Ibrahim. “We only did it for a week”.

“Wait.” instructed Jade. “What about Adam and Eve then? How come there were dinosaurs?”

“Well I said, not every Christian thinks the story of Adam and Eve is literally true. For instance the biggest Christian denomination is Roman Catholicism, and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope…”

“The Pope’s boring” interrupted Ryan

“…has said that evolution is more than a theory”

“I think Buddhism is the true religion” said Julie.

“Do you know anything about Buddhism?” I asked.

“No” said Julie.



January 26, 2008

This is another one for the “if you have never taught in a bad school you might think this is trivial” file. The problem I’m about to go over probably happens in all schools, what makes it significant is entirely the scale of it in my day-to-day teaching life.

The problem is this: Kids throw things at each other.

Now this is a problem because it is constant, not because every child does it but because a significant number of students do it, and a small minority do it continually. You can punish when you see it, but for some students if they have something to throw they will wait until the teacher looks away and then throw at every opportunity. (I mean that literally, so potentially every two minutes for an entire day). Looking at it from the point of view of another student, just imagine what it is like to be in a classroom where at any moment you can have something thrown at you.

Some teachers set a detention whenever they see it happen. In a bad school the worst offenders are in the detention immune category and will not be deterred. You have little choice but to accept the inclination to throw as an inevitable fact of life, or teach in a way where you never look at a book or an individual but constantly survey the whole class.

So what do we do about the problem?

Well, it comes down to controlling the ammunition. Students collect a variety of things to throw:

  1. Plant-life. This is among the worst, berries, twigs and general detritus. Students are too lazy to bend down so they won’t usually collect stones, except to throw immediately, but they will strip hedges and trees of potential projectiles. All you can do is watch out for students stood next to hedges and trees and force them to drop their ammunition before they get to the classroom.
  2. Stationery and equipment. Fortunately in a tough school no student ever brings in their own stationery so teachers can control this one. Teachers must be careful never to lend out certain items except under close supervision. Staplers can be stripped of staples, glue-sticks can have their glue picked out, erasers can be thrown as a whole or broken to pieces first. Pencils with erasers on the end should be avoided, as should pens with lids or smaller parts. Activities that involve using small objects are avoided (so very few experiments in science are allowed, and no dice or coin-throwing in maths). Rulers, protractors, compasses and calculators must be as robust as possible. Colouring pencils and pens are never lent out (all shading is to be done in pencil).
  3. Paper. This is a very common one as it is in no short supply in schools. There has to be a very firm set of rules regarding it. Punishments must be given for tearing paper out of books or for passing notes. Worksheets must be kept to a minimum and always have names written on them as soon as they are handed out. Paper is often very unsatisfactory as ammunition, you need quite a lot of it to create a paper ball big enough to be noticed. The usual tactic to compensate for this is to chew it and fire it through a pen that has been adapted for the purpose. (The removed parts of the pen can then be used for throwing too).
  4. Food and sweets. In classrooms food and sweets have to be banned. Outside, it must be tightly regulated. It is entirely unremarkable to see students buy a cake from the school canteen and go into the playground and without taking one bite break off pieces and throw them until there is no cake left. Problems with gulls and rats are quite common in school playgrounds.
  5. Classroom Items. Teachers have to make their classrooms as bare as possible. No spare sheets of paper left out, no interesting tactile objects, no equipment left out in a tray. Drawing pins cannot be used for display work and blu-tack can only be used on posters high up on the walls. No classroom feature, such as blinds or heaters can have breakable parts.

All this seems like it might be overkill. I wish it was. The simple fact is there are kids in schools for whom this behaviour is habit. You know you have established your authority in the school when you can turn your back on kids without being hit with a missile.

Until you are truly feared then, student or staff, you can expect to be a target. If you’re lucky it will be a ball of paper or a berry. If you are unlucky it will be a calculator or a rock.

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