Excuse Me? Can I Have a New Tail to Wag My Dog?

I’ll probably not make many friends by writing this post but it concerns something that has been burning inside of me for a while. Exacerbated by the increasing ‘doom and gloom’ scare stories over the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, I really feel the need to let this one out. Strap yourself in. Here goes. If you were to ask me what my concerns were over the eventual qualifications system of CfE in the upper stages of school then I would have to say, at this point, I don’t really care. There. I said it. I feel better already.

Alongside the dreary negativity which is churned out whenever the subject is raised in the media – a negativity which does not compare with my experience – there is an almost gleeful exuberance at times when a teacher, a parent, an individual expresses their hatred of the new curriculum. Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t perfect. I’m no cock-eyed optimist. There is still a long way to go to really assess its success. I just don’t think it is constructive to constantly snipe at something which is here and here to stay.

As for qualifications, the amount of times I’ve heard teachers say to me that if we teach the children well they will pass any exam we put in front of them suggests that others would agree with me. That concept, however, seems to be slipping away now we have the opportunity, in many ways, to put it into practice. This needs to be a time where, as individuals, we are embedding our practice with outstanding, challenging, creative teaching. We should be developing the wonderful things we already do, enhancing those things with real life experiences and stretching, bar raising tasks.  And, for the most part, I think that is beginning to happen. For example, no English teacher I know sees the Curriculum for Excellence as an exercise in dumbing down, an excuse to avoid the prickly subject of grammar, or proclaiming spelling to be a thing of the past.

However, before you label me as some idealistic lefty who thinks examinations are outdated – you might be right but that is not what I’m saying here – I do think the qualifications will have their place. But if we are to wait until they are embedded before we can be comfortable with change then what does that assume about the profession? That we do indeed teach to the test? That we do indeed believe that passing school exams is the be all and the end all? If that is so I think we may well miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

A teacher said to me the other day, ‘why can’t they just tell us what the exams will be like so we can just get on with it?’ My heart sank.  If we teachers are truly to make the best of the most significant change in curriculum probably in most of our careers then we need to forget about what the examination may become and start to ensure our classrooms are challenging, creative, collaborative spaces which raise the bar for every student in our care; and we need to start now. Our society deserves young people who are successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and an effective contributors. It is our job, our duty, our raison d’etre to ensure that happens.

At this point I can understand that parents and pupils want to know about the exams; schools should always be working closely with them for the best possible outcomes for children. However, as the curriculum is not new any more – it is what we now do every day – my questions is this: do teachers really have to?

Starting All Over Again. Every Day.

Keep your thoughts positive

because thoughts become your words.

Keep your words positive

because words become your actions.

Keep your actions positive

because actions become your habits.

Keep your habits positive

because habits become your values.

Keep your values positive

because values become your future.

         (From Inspirational Teachers, Inspirational Learners’

Will Ryan, Crown House Publishing, 2011. page 175)

It has been a long tortuous week since last Monday when I experienced perhaps one of my most disastrous lessons. It was made worse by the fact that there was a fantastic support teacher in the room standing beside a student teacher who was observing for the first time. There was little learning being done; or so I thought. There was, however, crushing embarrassment and suffocating deflation on my part. The lesson had been planned meticulously; or so I thought. I had set the challenge bar high but not too high; or so I thought. However, everything that I had planned slipped away as the lesson started badly and went rapidly down hill.

I reacted badly, sharing my pain with my Twitter PLN who responded in kind. My initial reactions, most of them unrepeatable, centred around the blame I placed on the students, the revenge I would take, the removal of privileges and anything remotely like interactive learning in the near future. I sat on the train scribbling things furiously into a notebook, things I’d do better, things I’d change about my classroom lay out, pin-pointing the culprits. But, as home approached, I began to understand who the real culprit was.

For one, if I was being honest, I hadn’t planned as well as I could have. I had relied on memories of a successful lesson from last year. Surely it would be the same this time. My resources were excellent. Previous lessons had gone well; there was a lot of good work to build on. The only difference was the students in front of me. Things did not go well and I failed to deal with that. I was not prepared for the level of disconnect. Under pressure to salvage something from the lesson I made poor decisions and little learning occurred. Or did it?

Would I have been equally upset if there had been no other adults in the room? Was I really just embarrassed that my reputation had, perhaps, been sullied by one badly taught, badly led lesson?  Would I have quietly accepted it if no one else had known? Or was I really just looking for an excuse to deflect the blame? As teachers have to do, I picked myself up, dusted myself off and started all over again. I didn’t see the class for a couple of days but I rethought my plan, reassessed my sources and headed back in. Was it better? Yes. Was it great? No; but the student teacher certainly witnessed two contrasting lessons. It was a valuable lesson for him.

Poor lessons must never be acceptable but they do occur, despite our wish to think otherwise. Taking what you can from the remains is what makes us better. This is perhaps why the announcement that new Chief of Inspectors at OFSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw, claimed that teachers would never be given salary increases unless they ‘shone in the classroom’. My experience of Inspection doesn’t quite fit with that thinking, where HMI visit one, perhaps two, lessons and make a judgement. On any one day an inspector could walk into a disaster area; lessons going wrong for so many reasons. Good teachers shine over series of lessons; with the relationships they form; with the manner in which they learn from their mistakes.

If we are truly to believe that our students learn better through trying and failing and trying again, then it must also be acceptable for teachers to occasionally fail too. We must model good learning. Even if that means modelling good failing.

‘I’m Listening’

Niles Crane: Tonight I’m picking up an award for a paper I presented last year

Frasier Crane: What case did you win it for?

Niles Carne: A gripping tale of a narcissistic opera singer. I called it ‘Me Me Me Me Me.’

 ‘Frasier’ Series 4 Episode 4 ‘Dad Loves Sherry, The Boys Just

Whine’

We teachers can be an idealistic lot at times. We want our classes to be wonderful, exciting places and our students to leave our rooms energised. We may have been inspired by wonderful, inspirational teachers ourselves, teachers whose classes we remember as being full of fun and wonder, taught with sense of humour and energy. We may even have been inspired by those incredible on screen teachers: Sidney Poitier in ‘To Sir With Love’, Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society’, Barry Evans in ‘Mind Your Language’. However, perhaps I remember them for the wrong reasons.

For a while, I was using the movie, ‘Freedom Writers’ as a classroom resource to, hopefully, encourage reluctant writers that they all have something to say. If you are unaware of the movie, it is about a young teacher who goes into a tough school in LA with great expectations, only to find kids demotivated by alleged institutional racism along with drug and gang culture. She turns them on to school through a series of inspirational lessons and, by the end, they worship her. (sigh) And there’s the rub. Deep down did I really want my students to feel the same way about me? Is that why I really showed them the film?

In his foreword to Will Ryan’s excellent ‘Inspirational Teachers, Inspirational Learners’,  Ian Gilbert claims that, ‘if the children in your classroom are spellbound by your performance in the classroom then you are charismatic but not inspiring.’  How much do we teachers dominate the lessons we try to teach? And how often is that something to do with ego? The performers deep within come out and there is no greater sound than laughter, especially when we cause it; but, if we’re being honest, our students lose something valuable in those lessons, something much more important than our secret desire to be worshipped. Active learning time.

When we spend the time attempting to inspire our children to stand on their desks chanting, ‘Oh Captain, my Captain’ they are learning nothing useful. They may well remember us but perhaps not for the right reasons. I’ve stopped using ‘Freedom Writers’ as a resource. probably because I realised that it was a fairly mediocre movie, but also because I could inspire good writing in other ways. These kids have their troubles but they are not demotivated in the way those LA kids were; they don’t have the same issues, they don’t need me to save them. They need me to teach them properly.

I’m learning to stand back more and more in my lessons. Experience has taught me that if kids remember my class because ‘he was a good laugh’ then I may have failed them. It should never have been about me.