Why aren’t I a better teacher?

Results are out soon. They will bring with them the usual mix of joy, disappointment and indifference – among students, that is. For me, they will bring the usual question:    why hasn’t my obvious teaching genius been reflected in uniformly jaw-dropping results – particularly when compared to those of colleagues?

It is entirely possible that this is a window into my character that I don’t really want to open. It lays bare an innate competitiveness which I don’t like and don’t recognise in my day to day approach. I am a prolific producer of resources which I think are great – natch – and which I always share with colleagues at my current school (sometimes they humour me by using them) and, where I think they might be useful, at my previous one. Part of my role is to mentor staff brand new to the profession (we don’t insist on a teaching qualification) and I do this assiduously.   I engage in departmental and school wide debates about how to improve our teaching. To put it shortly, most of the time I’m not in it to win it, just to improve the education my school offers.

That changes at this time of year. I really, really want my students to do well, but not just for them: for me, too.  Raw, value added, whatever measure you care to mention, I’m not fussed. I just want to top the podium. Every time.  To prove that I am the teaching genius I think – I know – I am, you see.

So, that fact that my results might not show this is a source of some disquiet. Of course there are lots of variables in play and I can’t control them all. My colleagues are brilliant.  Exam results are only one measure, etc etc.  But that won’t stop me thinking, what did I do wrong? What can I do better?

That might sound admirable, except that it has questionable roots and usually leads to a state of near despair. I work really hard. I am – and forgive the arrogance but I can’t make the point without it – pretty highly rated by students and colleagues alike. I read and think about education.  I prize knowledge. I question, I challenge, I stretch. I do all those good things. And still, I don’t blow my peers out of the water at exam time.

I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way, nor in disliking the fact that I do. Fortunately, experience shows that the feeling will soon give way to a set of new year resolutions which, if I stick to them, will help me improve. This year though I’ve read more books, tweets and blogs than ever before, so my NYRs will be more closely targeted. I’ll also publish them on this blog. I mean, there’s no better incentive to reach a goal than to tell people about it, right?





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Lessons from Uganda

My school has links to one in the remote South West of Uganda. It’s good and places are highly coveted. We do a lot of fundraising for it, most recently paying for new dormitories. Every year we take around 20 Y11/12s over there to see the school, meet some students, observe and teach some lessons and where possible make ourselves generally useful.

No doubt there are lots of firmly held opinions on this sort of trip. Feel free to share. But what I want to focus on is what I saw in the classroom and what conclusions I drew.

Class sizes there range from about eight in the Sixth Form to 60 in Y9-11 (there is no Y7 or 8). Students sit at wooden desks in groups of three. Classrooms have no IT whatever, just a blackboard and white (only white) chalk. Walls are overwhelmingly bare. The teacher is the undoubted expert in the room. There is lots of call and response and repeat after me. There is no group work. There are very few resources. There is lots of writing, some of it for homework, and not much marking. Discipline is good. The relationships with teachers are respectful.

What struck me about much of this was its familiarity from a range of recent books and blogs. There are probably many teachers, perhaps particularly those of a “traditional” bent, who might practise or aspire to something a little similar. No gimmicky IT which takes ages to master, serves only to distract and will be superseded next year; no worksheets to slave over and jam the photocopier; no displays of work which no-one reads; no lazy group activities which benefit no-one; no personalised but ultimately pointless feedback.

Foolishly I didn’t ask whether the school has adopted this ethos of necessity or by design, but I suspect the former. The structural limitations make anything else impractical. Indeed I’m not sure how much of a trad v prog debate there would be in Uganda.

It’s different over here, though. We have better facilities, smaller class sizes and more resources. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that and neither should we use or do things just because we can. But we should be absolutely sure that if we eschew, say, group work in favour of teacher talk, we do it for the right reasons.

If you are attracted by “traditional” teaching, great. But don’t just read Battle Hymn and swallow it whole. Question it, and then read and question some other trads. Do the same for progs, and perhaps even those who claim “no best way”. Then decide on your approach, based on what you believe is best for your students.  You have the luxury of choice, so choose wisely. We owe our Ugandan colleagues that professional courtesy.