Monday, 30 July 2012

Is Silence Golden?

A teacher I worked with last year started every lesson with ten minutes of silent reading. This was a fairly self-explanatory process: the students brought in a book from home or the school library and read it for the allotted time. But was this a good use of their time?

My strong suspicion is that this opening activity was designed purely for the teacher’s benefit. The silent reading period ensured the class settled quickly after break or lunch, meant that latecomers didn’t miss anything vital and allowed her time to set up the lesson, do a register and finish her coffee. Occasionally she would make a token effort to check that the pupils had an ability-appropriate novel in their sweaty little mitts, but largely they were left to their own devices.

Of course, not every child in her class had a voracious appetite for literature. Many kids would spend ten minutes either staring through their paperback or around the room. Others failed miserably to ever bring a book with them. Instead they would steal from the teachers’ appalling collection of grubby charity-shop cast-offs, reading tattered copies of outdated kid-lit from the mid-seventies before tossing it carelessly back from whence it came. 

As a prospective teacher of English, i’m very aware of the benefits of a varied diet: as a child I’d polished off CS Lewis by the age of twelve and had moved onto sneakily stealing copies of my dad’s Steven King novels, reading my mother’s copies of Bella in the bath and giggling at the readers’ letters in the soggy porn mags I hunted for in local hedges. Without these formative literary experiences, where would I be now?

But why do we read? Aside from the obvious pleasure we take from a good story or a neat turn of phrase, what is its purpose? The late Bill Hicks was once posed a similar question by a waitress and responded:  "Wow, I've never been asked that... You stumped me. Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for? I guess I read for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress!”

This was, of course, a typically caustic joke. But humour only works when it contains a kernel of truth – and Hicks was a famously honest and perceptive comic. He knew, like you and I, that reading benefits us by improving our vocabularies, aids our understanding of the world and our place within it, enhances our spoken language skills, helps us to empathise or criticise, enables us to construct arguments and forces us to develop our imaginations.

In principle, then, silent reading ought to be hugely beneficial – but only if it is active reading. How do you ensure it is a valuable experience? Ask the kids to write book reviews? Ensure you have a good selection of books to lend them? Spot quizzes? Replace silent reading with some form of guided reading tasks? Or just spend ten minutes teaching them something instead?

Let me know below or on Twitter!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Why Bother With My PGCE, Mr Gove?

Once again, and to nobody’s great surprise, Michael Gove has announced another ill-considered and absurd attack on the nation’s teachers. Now, in his infinite wisdom he has declared that anyone can teach in his academies without a relevant teaching qualification. Mere life experience and expertise will be enough. But where does this leave me as I prepare to embark on my PGCE year?

Firstly, I concede that experience and expertise are important. I’m almost 33 years old and have plenty of ‘life experience’ (I actually cringed as I wrote that) and relevant work experience having performed various training, coaching and management jobs over a varied career. More important than any of that, however, is the two years I’ve just spent working in a school. With young people. And teachers. And a national curriculum.

Assuming that being a genius in your field enables you to teach is plainly wrong. It’s the same wrong-headed attitude that sees those with first class honours degrees awarded three times the training salaries of their 2:1 toting contemporaries. The misguided assumption is that the better you are at something, the better you’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to your young charges. Anyone with opposable thumbs and a modicum of commonsense could point out that this is utter horseshit. The way that message is conveyed, the ability to relate to young people and making that learning memorable so that it sticks is what’s important. You don’t need to know string theory to teach kids GCSE physics. But you do need to inspire them and interest them in the subject – knowledge alone is not enough.

Without having yet embarked upon my course, I know that I’ll spend hours observing existing teachers, taking their advice, looking at the theory behind education and managing a classroom, coping with different behaviours, differentiating by task and outcome, setting learning objectives, continually assessing my students, applying my subject knowledge to the syllabus and correcting any gaps or weaknesses, absorbing the atmosphere of a school and countless other tasks, exercises and activities designed to raise my skill levels and my pupils’ attainment. Presumably Gove sees no value in any of this, instead preferring to assume that my knowledge of my subject will seep by osmosis into every child I come into contact with? 

I took a huge risk to leave a well paid career behind and work as a teaching assistant for two years (scraping by on less than £8000 a year). I’m now committed to a further year of study which will cost me £9000 in fees and will see my existing student loan debt swell beyond comprehension. I did these things because I needed to do them to follow this path, because I felt they would put me ahead of my contemporaries and because they were requirements of the job. I made sacrifices that I deemed to be worthwhile because I really, really want to teach English.

Now, it seems I may have wasted my time. I could’ve wandered into one of Gove’s academies, given a whizz-bang interview and been hired thanks largely to my charisma and fancy-talk. Of course, as soon as I entered a classroom full of kids who weren’t interested in me and didn’t share my enthusiasm for Simon Armitage and subordinate clauses, I’d have been up Excrement Creek without the required rowing implement. 

What Gove stupidly assumes is that anyone can wander into a classroom and teach. They can’t. It is an art, a skill and a profession. Teachers are not knowledge-boxes to be tapped. Kids have got Wikipedia for that. They are not lecturers or key-note speakers. I’ve spent two years sitting in English lessons, have taught plenty of my own and have read dozens of highly regarded books on the art of teaching. But I am not a teacher. I am not ready to be one yet. I cannot do the job properly until I have been trained appropriately. For Gove to assume that just anyone can walk in from whatever sphere, and can do this complicated, demanding job is an insult to all educators, prospective teachers and, worst of all, our children.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Inclusion Delusion

I once engaged my line manager in a semantic debate about the term ‘inclusion’. I lost the argument. My defeat came not because I was wrong, but because she was blinkered to the point of self-deception, unwilling to concede that there might be better/alternate strategies and inflexible to the point of idiocy.
The best word to describe my previous school’s inclusion policy would be ‘exclusive’. Those in ‘inclusion’ were removed from their classes, their subject teachers and their peers, seconded in an (admittedly well equipped) subterranean classroom and taught by unqualified teaching assistants. These lessons were not the same as the ones their friends were receiving and often consisted of time-filling tasks followed by some ‘reward time’ on a computer when they’d been judged to have ‘done enough’.
My manager (the head of SEN) simply failed to see that, semantically at least, ‘inclusion’ was a misnomer. These kids were not included in the life of the school. They were separated and treated differently, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a cycle of unwanted behaviours which saw them unable to ever escape: take a kid with behavioural issues, isolate him for a period and watch what happens when you release him back into circulation. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this bundle of repressed energy is likely to explode – and in damaging ways.
I’m only at the beginning of my teaching journey and still retain an air of idealism: I don’t want pupils removed from my classes unless all other alternatives have been exhausted. It benefits nobody to marginalise and label children as ‘trouble-causers’ or to believe them ‘unteachable’. For me, inclusion means ensuring that every kid in my class feels safe and able to learn. If that’s not the case, I’ll blame myself – not them.
Am I insane? Misguided? Are my experiences typical? Let me know!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

If one more person tells me how hard my PGCE year will be, I’ll rip their spinal column out with my bare hands and whip them to death with it. I know how difficult it will be. I am ready for it. And I have been preparing.

Already, I’ve raced through some excellent books about teaching. Not dry academic tomes, but useful and practical guides by leading practitioners of the art of teaching. Phil Beadle’s How to Teach was absolutely magnificent, Trevor Wright’s How to Be a Brilliant English Teacher was even better. David Didau’s The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson is next on the agenda and already looks to be rammed with useful and usable ideas and tools I can use in my own classes. Rex Gibson’s guide to teaching Shakespeare is already on my bookshelf. If there are other reads you’d recommend, please let me know. 

My previous career in a secondary school has also furnished me with absolutely invaluable experience. I’ve observed two years of English teaching at every age group and ability – very few of my contemporaries will be able to boast of that much experience. And in that time, I taught dozens of lessons – and learned lessons from them. I have a good idea of what kind of teacher I’ll be and the approach I find most comfortable. I already relate well to kids and get on with them brilliantly. I’ve experienced every behavioural challenge imaginable (i’m aware that some are simply unimaginable).

I have a cache of lesson plans which I’ve already written. They’ll need to be moulded into my university’s style and adapted according to my classes, but the bones are there to be fleshed out. Time consuming planning like that for the Moon on the Tides anthology is largely done - provided my placement schools study either Relationships or Character & Voice .I’m halfway through producing a scheme of work based on a zombie apocalypse which will be the starting point for all sorts of writing tasks. There are dozens of other plans either completed or ready to be written over the next few weeks. Some of them might never see the light of day but what’s the harm in practising?

What else can I do? What else should I be doing? I’m probably ahead of the game already but I want to be over the hill and far away by the time September ticks around. Your advice, tweets and comments would be massively appreciated.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A Triumverate of Terrible Teachers

Lurking in classrooms for two years, I have seen some truly outstanding teachers at work. They are a significant minority. Most are merely average. Some are appalling. A few are worse than that. Here are the least effective educators I’ve seen in action...

The Dictator
An English practitioner who literally dictates everything to the kids she ‘teaches’. Whether it’s mnemonics, annotations on their poetry texts or scribbles in the margins of their Dickens, her shrill cry of ‘write this down’ punctuated the air at least 472 times per lesson. The pupils were, understandably, bored shitless.

Clearly a woman who knew the subject inside out, she was exhausted with teaching: out of ideas and in desperate need of reinvigoration. I often taught her class and wrote her lesson plans for her – as much for my sake as that of the students. These lessons were designed to be fun and interactive, with specific objectives, written outcomes and genuine learning. She marvelled at my ‘originality’ and promised to use such approaches in the future. I recently had my last lesson with her and she took me aside to tell me, “It’s okay having all these activities and exercises, but make sure they write everything down. If they have notes of everything you can’t be accused of not teaching them it”. I despaired.

The Bi-Polar Bastard
Somehow this individual inveigled himself into a senior position despite being an utter charlatan. I rarely saw him actually teach anything thanks to his ‘hands-off’ approach to independent learning. His classroom was an utter shithole, filled with festering coffee mugs and cluttered workspaces around which he pranced like a preening peacock performing for his captive audience. Worse than this, however, was the fact that the children never knew where they stood with him. One minute he’d be their best friend: smiling, laughing, joking and joshing like an admirable older brother. Within seconds a perceived slight would see him transform into a snarling, aggressive bully bawling out his young charges like they’d just tweaked his grandmother's nipples. An odious, self-obsessed man blissfully unaware of the contempt his classes hold him in.

The Dotty Old Bird
One of the loveliest women in the world, this fifty-something English teacher was not cut out for a today's schoolroom. Unable to turn on a PC, badly out of touch with the ‘yoof’ and the worst disciplinarian ever to set foot in an English comprehensive, every lesson was a battle. Kids entered and exited her class as they pleased, nobody ever completed any work and nobody ever listened. Pens were used exclusively as missiles, black market chocolate bars were traded and profanities peppered the air. And she stoically battled on, unaware that not a soul in the room was listening to a word she said. School prefects turned into animals in her lessons, aware that there were no sanctions for their disgusting behaviour: The Lord of the Flies for the 21st century. A former grammar school teacher, she simply was not made for an inner-city comp and was chewed up and spat out into the pile marked ‘long-term sick’.

As useless as they were, however, these three terrible teachers did at least contribute positively to someone’s education: mine. Hopefully I’ll never make the mistakes they made, never stop caring and never forget that I am not the most important person in my classroom.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Kids Are Not Dumb - Not Even The Dumb Ones!

The role of Teaching Assistant affords a unique perspective on the classroom. Placed amongst the students, the TA is neither a teacher nor a pupil. Accordingly, they are treated as a hybrid of the two: an adult the kids can trust and conspire with, but also learn from and admire. It’s a wonderful  position to be in.

Although it’s usually advisable to shut them up before they divulge exactly which laws they broke or how much vodka they imbibed at the weekend, it can be wholly instructive to listen to the pupils talk about school life. The truth emerges about playground rumours, their perspective on classroom incidents vary wildly from the staffroom equivalents and their true feelings about the teaching staff are laid bare. After two years of being privy to such revelations, i realised that students are enormously perceptive and hugely demanding when it comes to their teachers. Here are the three keys things i learned:
  1. 1  If a teacher doesn’t turn up, they got no respect.
  2. 2  If a teacher doesn’t do what they say, they get no respect.
  3. 3. If a teacher doesn’t make a class work, they got no respect.
(for the uninitiated, respect is a huge fucking deal to teenage kids) 

Some of these ‘revelations’ might seem counter-intuitive or surprising. But they shouldn’t be. Kids are not dumb. None of them. Some might be less able than others, but every single one of them can see straight through a faker. They can spot a bullshitter. They know when you are ‘phoning it in’. They will hate you for it. And they’ll make you suffer for not doing your job properly.

1. There are a number of kids in schools who live unstable lives. It’s your job as a teacher to provide some measure of stability for them. This means being in their lesson EVERY SINGLE DAY. If you’re not there you are letting them down. You are failing them. You undermining your own teaching by suggesting that your subject is not important. You are implying that it’s okay for them to miss your lesson – after all, you do! Worst of all, you are leaving them with a substitute teacher and a shitty pile of pointless timewasting tasks which will never get marked: cover lessons are not taken seriously by anyone. Kids hate teachers who miss lessons and have absolutely no respect for them: do not be ill and do not put yourself forward for every school trip available: DO NOT ABSENT YOURSELF FROM YOUR OWN LESSONS.

2, If you show weakness and inconsistency, kids will eat you alive. If you fail to keep your promises or follow through on your threats, they will seek to take advantage at every available opportunity. They will quickly ascertain how to appeal to your better nature, worm their way into your affections and talk you out of your sanctions. Set out your standards for behaviour and then adhere to them ruthlessly. Contrary to what you might think, they will respect you for this - because they will always know where they stand with you. They will know your threats are never empty. They will not be able to complain that others are treated differently or that they are being victimised. 

3. Once you have managed to drag yourself into school and instilled some discipline in your class, don’t forget to make them do some work. Proper work. Set objectives and teach to them. Make them think for themselves. Communicate clearly and enable discussion, groupwork and peer-to-peer learning. Make them write things down. Ensure they can recognise their own progress. And then mark their books, grade their oral work and praise them to the heavens. Kids like doing work. But they don’t like boring work. They like fun tasks, variety and thinking for themselves. They like clarity in their teaching and they like the work they produce to be appreciated and graded so they know how to make improve the next time. You would not believe the number of times i’ve heard kids moan about teachers who “never make us do any writing” or who refuse to work because “it won’t get marked anyway”.

Isolated from the reality of the classroom, cocooned in their bubbles at the front of the room, too many teachers are blissfully/painfully unaware of the demands their students have of them. I’ve sat through too many shitty lessons with ill-prepared teachers to ever make those mistakes myself: if i want my kids to respect me, i have to treat them with respect too.

An Introduction!

At the age of thirty I decided to become an teacher of English. This was a problematic/idiotic decision for a lot of reasons, chief amongst them my complete lack of relevant experience and my completely irrelevant degree. So I started at the very bottom of the teaching ladder: I became a teaching assistant.

Two years on, I'm about to embark on my PGCE. I've worked with every age group in my inner city school, working exclusively in the English department and observing the whole secondary English curriculum taught by a variety of teachers. I've clocked up hours of teaching time myself and learned enormous amounts about life in schools: hopefully this will give me a massive head start as I work towards NQT status.

Predictably, I learned most from those teachers whose style and approach I held in disdain - and there were plenty of shitty teachers in my school. But there were also wonderful, inspirational staff members whose success lessons I will seek to emulate, copy and shamelessly pass off as my own for years to come.

Over the course of the summer I'll be detailing what I've learned in my teaching career so far. Names will be changed to protect people's identities and salaries - but I'll not hold back from corruscating criticism of those who deserve it (teachers with appalling attendance records, my feckless manager and Michael Gove will be getting both barrels). The many positives (and they far outweight the negatives) will also be detailed.

From September I'll document my journey through my PGCE, share my lesson plans and thoughts on teaching, and hopefully inspire debate and conversation amongst fellow students of language, literature and education. Here we go...