This week we interviewed four potential new English teachers with the aim that one of them would join our department. It was a brilliant day with excellent candidates and the final decision required lots of hard thought and discussion.
As is usually the case, the candidates were all required to deliver a full hour long lesson. I know that many schools prefer a 25 or 30 minute lesson, but I honestly think that a full hour is the best way to see how potential recruits perform under pressure: anybody can pack an engaging 25 minutes in with a class they’ve never met, but the full hour can give a much clearer picture when trying to differentiate between candidates and tests a wider range of skills, including time management, ability to maintain pace and momentum, and the strength to hold their nerve.
I thoroughly enjoyed observing the lessons. The task was to prepare a mixed ability KS4 class for the “describe” question in Section B of the English Language paper. I felt this was open-ended enough to allow creativity and originality whilst compelling careful thought and application in differentiating across the full range of abilities. A few years ago, I’d have expected to see unusual props brought in to “engage” (entertain?) our more “kinaesthetic learners”, with all kinds of gimmicky tricks that would shock and awe them into devoting their full attention.
Refreshingly, this wasn’t the case.
Without exception, all the lessons involved careful teacher modelling and explanation, clear success criteria, whole class discussion with a range of questioning strategies to elicit understanding, silent thinking, planning and writing time, and time for self or peer assessment. Some also included the study of literary examples in the preparation stage.
I can’t overstate just how pleased I was about this. It used to make me furious back in the noughties when I’d be observed by people who insisted on lessons that contained bizarre and “creative” ways to engage students. I remember once succumbing to this pressure for an observation and bringing in a guitar and trying to get the kids to sing a song I’d written about subordinate clauses; it was absolutely awful because it wasn’t my normal way of doing things – the kids felt uncomfortable, the observer (now a close friend) had all on not to burst into hysterics, and I felt a complete prat. She very kindly gave me a “satisfactory” for the lesson, more out of consideration for my self-esteem than anything else and the students barely learnt a thing (we still have a good laugh about it now).
It was one of my current colleagues who coined the term “sandpits”, which we now use as a catch-all term for those lessons that are fun, busy and practical but have no real application in developing students’ learning. She remembers a colleague actually bringing a full sandpit into a lesson during an Ofsted visit; this wasn’t her typical teaching style and even if it had been she’d have burnt out in two years. As nice as these lessons are for entertaining the students and keeping them happy (and avoiding the job at hand), they are generally a waste of time (English is an academic subject that requires excellent reading, writing and verbal skills, not the ability to build a tower of paper-clips). Our energies should be put into planning great lessons that build these skills up and that feed into what our students need to be able to do to succeed both in life after school and in their exams. The interview lessons that I saw on Friday restored some of my faith in the way that teacher training and teaching generally has fortunately moved over the last five years.
Oh, where have all the sandpits gone? (Condemned to the dustbin of educational history with any luck).