2021 was a watershed year for me as a teacher.
That sounds terribly boastful, so let me add some much-needed humility: for most of my brief career lessons have felt like a frustrating hodgepodge of seemingly random tasks, techniques, and approaches. They have felt overly cumbersome, like being handed a heavily shuffled Rubik’s cube.
But 2021 was the year I took greater strides towards teaching properly – the mess of previous years’ fumblings now fully-formed into bold blocks of colour.
What, then, do I intend to do in 2022? More of what I did in 2021:
Read around my subject
Last year I began to follow lots of other teachers on Twitter. One unintended consequence of this were the frequent recommendations of good books I could be reading; a ready-made reading list for up-and-coming teachers like myself.
Teachers, like everyone on social media, largely present themselves on Twitter in a shiny positive light. What they choose to reveal about their teaching practice is often (but not always) a reel of highlights from their day: here is a clever thought I’ve had; here is a great resource I’ve made; here is how I handled a tricky situation brilliantly.
What’s great about that is it creates the impression that there is an army of outrageously competent teachers out there (and who am I to say there isn’t?).
This impression elevated my aspirations to a degree higher than they might have been were I only to look at my immediate circle of fallible real-life colleagues. These Twitter teachers inspired me to be better, to want to know more. And so in 2021 I dutifully read more books, blogs, and twitter threads, (partly as a way of keeping up with the @Joneses).
By reading around my subject more I have become a much more effective speaker in the classroom. I can explain concepts better simply because I know more; I can confidently connect the dots together in my mind, talking uninhibited about a topic. I have become the hallowed ‘expert in the room’ whose gravitas makes (most) students sit up and listen.
Why does speaking knowledgably have such power? In part because you can’t fake having subject knowledge. It’s hard won, from the arduous work that reading can sometimes be.
The expectation that teachers have this knowledge in abundance is largely why having an undergraduate level of education is still the minimum expectation.
But even being in possession of a degree, it is hard to really be sure what any teacher knows or doesn’t know. There is not a subject knowledge test you need to pass. Some teachers simply know a lot more (and some a lot less) than others.
With English studies especially there is a question mark hanging over us: what on earth are we expected to teach? David Didau highlights this problem in his latest book Making Meaning in English. He writes ‘one of the difficulties for English teachers […] is that there is surprisingly little substantive knowledge which we agree must be taught. Shakespeare plays are about as close as we get.’
The problem goes further. Beyond reading these texts with students it is not always obvious what we expect students to know about them at the end of a term. Two classes can spend six weeks studying the same play and learn vastly different things about it.
It was only until I did some further reading around the texts I’m expected to teach, did I really know what content I could be delivering. This has made my recent lessons a richer experience for myself, as well as the students I teach.
But oddly it was down to me to do this reading, often outside of school. I have not yet worked in a school where this reading is provided, nor is appropriate time set aside to do it. It all feels very much like an optional extra, and it really shouldn’t be.
Plan lessons that focus on sharing knowledge, not making loads of resources
A handful of years ago my understanding of ‘lesson planning’ was synonymous with ‘creating dozens of Powerpoint slides’. I did this for years and no one ever told me otherwise (largely I suspect because they were all doing it too). There was some hushed talk about teaching without, but this was spoken about in the same manner that one might talk about barefoot marathoners – seemingly plausible, arguably beneficial, although no-one knew anyone who actually did it.
The issue with all this resource creation is that it was outrageously time-consuming. A five-period day could (for me, at least) consist of up to three hours ‘planning’ the night before. Why did I do it? Well, I was driven by worry; concerned with keeping the students busy for fear that if they found themselves disengaged for even a minute they would start flipping over the desks.
A lot of my lessons in 2021 have been stripped right back. I will put a task on the board for when the students enter the room (a retrieval task, usually, or perhaps a question that would lead into the topic of the lesson). After that though, the floor’s mine. I’ll explain what we’re going to learn about and then explain to the class what I want them to know. Within this there will be questions to check understanding, of course, but a lot of it is me unashamedly talking. One great aspect of this is that the student’s attention is not distracted by anything on the board behind me because, well, there often isn’t anything there. It’s liberating to not feel compelled to step aside for fear of blocking the Comic Sans.
And when I’ve finished explaining a concept and I’m confident most get it, I’ll then do some writing under a visualiser, usually starting with an example. I’ll (once again) talk through it or, if this is not entirely new to them, I’ll do an example with their input to see what they know and whether there are any misunderstandings.
Modelling live requires little preparation time. What time I do spend on planning is used to work through in my mind, or on a scrap of paper, what it is that I want students to know, and how I’m going to show it to them. Sometimes I’ll practice the modelling beforehand if I worry I’ll get stuck, although often that will spoil the spontaneity of writing something live, which is truly what I want to get across.
It’s important to stress that this only ever works when you have the knowledge to share, and that’s the hardest part of all. I now believe that lesson planning should be mostly spent acquiring the necessary knowledge yourself so that you’re able to dispense it to students.
It is for this reason I cannot roll into school and successfully teach a Science cover lesson on plant cell structure to Year 10, despite being emailed detailed Powerpoint slides to work with (believe me, I once tried).
Solve students’ problems
By signposting what a lesson will be about
Have you ever had students, when they arrive in the classroom, ask ‘Sir, what are we doing today?’
Since they seem to have a real eagerness to know exactly what they’ll be doing the sooner I can explain that, the sooner they ease into the lesson.
So once my students have written down the title, date and had a go at the task on the board when they come in, I’ll explain: Right, what we’re going to do today is….’.
I’m not sure why I started opening lessons with an explanation of the lesson’s aim (maybe because they kept asking…), but I found students to be highly receptive to it, and so I kept doing it.
Why might it appeal? One reason, perhaps, is that it takes away a fear of the unknown. Students can relax more in the knowledge of what to expect; that they’re not going to suddenly have a test thrust upon them, for instance.
By helping students structure their writing
Most of my students are rarely short for ideas. What they do find hard though is putting these ideas into words. I spent a lot of time in 2021 explicitly looking at how to structure sentences, paragraphs, and whole pieces of writing (essays, exam responses, descriptions, stories etc.).
An invaluable resource I strongly recommend for any English teacher is ‘Dr Andy’ who I discovered doing just this via his blog and Twitter account: codexterous – Thoughts about teaching, literature, and teaching literature (home.blog).
As the good doctor explains, this practice of structuring writing should at first be extensively modelled under a visualiser to scaffold, and then removed gradually as and when appropriate.
I have found that when my students became aware of how to structure their writing their thoughts were freed up to concentrate more on the content of their responses as opposed to the wording of their work; a waterslide that drops them into a task they might have otherwise found hard to access.
Have my own exercise book and write in lessons
A real pleasure I wish I had come across sooner is the joy of writing in lessons myself.
It’s been great at helping me explain what I want students to do. The idea is that their exercise book should mirror mine, so I might do an example first which they copy down, while I explain my thoughts aloud. Then we’ll do an example together, to check they understand what to do and to weed out any misunderstandings. Afterwards, they have a go themselves around which time I’ll proclaim that I too will be doing the same.
I’ve even gone one step further and handed myself an exercise book at the start of the year (‘There you are, Sir’ – ‘Why thank you, Sir’). On the front I’ll even write my name (I haven’t quite got around to writing a date and title yet, but now that I type this I don’t see why I shouldn’t – perhaps that’s what’s needed to address the messy underlining that I sometimes see in student’s exercise books?)
I’ve taught badly-behaved classes before where even the notion of taking my eyes off them for a second would be unthinkable, but this year it seemed to work rather well for most. I might be wrong, but I think some students appreciated that I was bothering to do the task I had set them. As a novice teacher I often felt a bit awkward whenever I set an extended task. I’d get the class in silence, start a timer, and then hover, peering over student’s shoulders or egging the reluctant to get started.
But I felt this made circumstances worse. I might be imagining this, but me floating around the room was giving them an opportunity – to ask me a question, or to glance up to see whether I was watching them. What was going wrong? Was I inviting disruption?
Doing the work myself, however, is showing that I am personally capable of doing what I’m asking of them; that it is not only possible, but dare I say even interesting.
Second, it shows I trust the students to do it in the first place; I expect them to get on with it and not have to be cajoled. By modelling I’m explicitly showing exactly what it is I want my students to do, and how to succeed at it – sitting still; looking at the paper in front of them, not at other students; writing, not talking.
And, so far at least, they seem to be getting on with it.
Let go of grudges
I wish I didn’t do this, but I have the memory of a particularly vengeful elephant and any sort of perceived slight, from students or staff, threatens to stay with me to my grave.
I saw a great tweet recently from @Jeffreykboakye who said: ‘a school is no place for grudges […] you know when you meet that student in the corridor that you’ve had a few historic run-ins with? The most powerful thing to do is to enthusiastically greet them like an old friend.’
Last term I decided to throw caution to the wind and give this a go.
And do you know what? It bloody worked. My cheery ‘Morning!’ elicited positive or, at the very least, neutral responses. Nothing bad happened.
But, most importantly, it just felt good, and you can’t put a price on that.
So, if you happen to peer into my classroom in 2022 you should see me doing one of two things: hoovering up more knowledge or explaining it to students.
And if you find me doing neither, please take me to task – I promise I won’t hold it against you.