In a recent blog, a respected former colleague of mine wrote a blog entitled “MIND SHIFT: Leaders of Learning Creating Independent Learners”. In it he argues that teachers should become Leaders of Learning and that we should all implement a student-centred approach. These ideas have been bandied about for many years in education now, and I’d argue that while they may have a degree of relevance in some situations, it is wrong to suggest that they are the best approach for all subjects and all teachers.
As an English teacher and HoD, with all the responsibilities to students and their families that these roles bring, I’d argue that to simply go for the student—centred collaborative approach as a default setting is a recipe for disaster and risks doing a gross disservice to our students. The texts and concepts that we deal with in my subject are just too complex and slippery for students to be allowed to go off and discuss and “discover” in groups before I’ve ensured that they have a good understanding of them. The thought of studying great literature with a group of KS3 or KS4 students using only collaborative, student-centred approaches makes my blood run cold. Even with a series of carefully designed collaborative tasks and the aids of support materials and reference books, I just couldn’t be sure that they would understand or engage with these texts in ways that were useful, and there’s always the added risk that they could be completely alienated from what they are studying without a healthy dose of direct instruction and whole class discussion directed by a subject expert (i.e. the teacher) to keep them on the right track.
I suppose fundamentally it comes down to the question of what we think our subjects and schools are for. I’ve previously written on what I think English is for in blog imaginatively entitled “What English is For”, and although I do agree that we have a duty to develop literate citizens who can communicate at a functional level in our society, this is in fact the duty of all teachers, and English is about so much more than that. I also want to see my learners engage with great texts in a way that helps them shed light on the human condition: I want them to think about why people behave in the way they do and grapple with big moral questions, as well as being good communicators. To do this they need to have expert teaching from somebody who can clearly explain concepts and ideas to them or ask the right probing questions that will move them to deeper levels of thinking. In the post, my ex-colleague asks:
“But does a teacher ‘guide’ or does a teacher ‘tell’?”
I would argue that this is a false dichotomy and that in actual fact a great teacher finds a middle ground in which he questions and explains expertly to advance learning. The blogger acknowledges that a learner is a beginner, and in my experience all learners in all contexts need experts to make things clear, and standing at the front of a classroom doing this to a class of students is usually the most efficient and effective starting point.
There is a big emphasis in the blog on independence and the design of lessons around questions. I agree with this, but in a slightly different way. I’ve been designing my lessons around a big question for a couple of years now and have kicked learning objectives into touch. My objective is simply that the students will be equipped to answer the question in as higher level a way as possible by the end of the learning episode (see my previous blog “The Big Question: raising challenge through dropping objectives”). At the end of each episode they are given time to write the best answer they can to the big question, independently and in silence, and in the next few days my written feedback and their responses to this creates further opportunity or improving skills and knowledge.
Over the last few years there has been far too much emphasis on having busy, noisy classrooms where students are doing lots. This has its place, but it mustn’t be at the expense of quiet reflection time. The best thinking comes through a combination of rich debate and quiet, independent reflective thought, and it’s crucial that we provide time and space for this type of learning to take place.
Another prescription made in the blog is that:
“The classroom cannot be set up in a 1950’s style straight rows with the teacher at the front and all the learners lined up. This will never have the effect of creating an environment that is conducive to developing skills that learners can use for higher education and the workplace.”
Until recently, I was a big believer in this idea, and experimented widely on different table configurations and set-ups informed by the peddlings of various snake-oil sellers (some of my earlier blogs were actually on this very topic). But this year I’ve gone back to rows. The rows aren’t quite traditional, as my room effectively has two fronts, so it’s more of a “herring-bone” layout with rows facing in two directions, but it is still rows. Let me quickly explain why.
For the first three years of my career I was peripatetic: I taught in rooms across the building, struggling to arrive to lessons before students, never knowing whether tables would be in the same layout as last time, and not knowing if the things I needed would still be there. I bobbed along as a barely satisfactory teacher, gazing in wonder and admiration at my calm and organised colleagues whose lessons seemed to be havens of learning and reflection, while I dutifully raged my mobile, guerrilla war of attrition against low level disruption throughout the school in numerous locations. In my fourth year I inherited a room. My teaching suddenly became organised and competent and most of the low-level disruption disappeared almost overnight. That year my results were the best they’d ever been (in a mixed ability English and Media group, 90% of students made 3+Lops), and for the next two years I continued to have great results.
At this point, I inherited a subject responsibility for Media. At that time the school offered both BTEC and GCSE Media Studies; I hated the BTEC course due to its vocational pretensions in which kids wasted hours pretending to be doing some quasi-vocational project when in fact they could have been learning useful stuff. At this time I had to leave my lovely English room to move to an equally pleasant Media Suite. In the spirit of the course the tables were set up in groups, and as I was doing a lot of reading about educational theory that championed group work and tables set out in groups I continued with various combinations of table groupings. Over the next 3 years, my Media results (both BTEC and GCSE) continued to be very good (always in the 70-90% A*-C range) but my English results dropped. During this period I experimented with a lot of student-led and student-centred approaches: I tried using various Kagan structures (which I still use in small doses) and also began involving students in planning how the learning in units would progress (see early blogs on using SOLO to involve students in planning). The students loved these approaches and felt empowered, and at the time I thought I had discovered a whole new world of learning, but the English results simply didn’t support this. Enjoyment and engagement were clearly visible, but the learning was, by comparison to my previous groups, fatuous and superficial.
Not long ago I came across a research review paper that attempted to compare and analyse research that had been done into the effect of table layout in classrooms, and the findings quite strongly suggested that students make the most progress when seated in rows. There are many reasons for this: concentration is improved, low-level disruption is more easily detected and eradicated, and it is easier for the expert teacher to bring the whole class back together to put them back on track and explain key concepts.
Furthermore, I would argue that although a part of what we do in education is to prepare students for the workplace (whatever that may look like – and let’s face it we don’t know what it will look like in the future), the classroom – particularly the classroom of the academic subject – is not the workplace, and to pretend it is is a nonsense, as seen in those pointless BTEC Media lessons mentioned earlier. Team-working structures may work in some subjects with some teachers, but in my experience they hinder progress and slow learning right down..
My subject is academic, and as such I want to foster an academic atmosphere of inquiry and curiosity in it, not some proto-quasi- office space in which students can pretend to be project managers, sales assistants or tea-boys. They’ll get enough practice at that when they leave school and no longer have time to wallow in the exploration of knowledge.
So, my point is that in some subjects (my Maths and Science colleagues would agree with me here) direct instruction to rows of students is the most efficient and effective method of delivery. Students are not experts in these types of subjects and allowing them to fumble about in groups while I pretend to be some kind of wishy-washy “facilitator” or “guide on the side” (>cringe<) just isn’t a good way to deliver these subjects. Good teaching is about expert instruction, the chance to practise, and smart, effective feedback, not about wearing thinking hats or dishing out pretend roles in some factory floor simulation.
Some years ago the school I worked in had no real accountability measures or explicit expectations about how teachers marked their books. Consequently, many never did, and the vast majority of the others (including myself) did it sporadically and with no real impact or reason. It was very much a case of ticking the pages and leaving a “well done” or a “good work” at the bottom to show the student that their books had been looked at. I remember a training day where teachers who were deemed outstanding were asked to put on exemplary lessons for teachers to partake in. It was a great experience but what shocked me was that in one lesson the books were marked with nothing other than ticks and “well dones”. Clearly not “outstanding” practice (whatever that may be, but that’s another discussion!).
Then, about 3 or 4 years ago, I started to read quite widely about educational practice and realised that this simply wasn’t good enough. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff and it became apparent to those of us that read this kind of thing that marking and feedback probably the single most important thing a teacher can do to improve student progress, if done well.
So I decided to change my ways. When I sat down and thought about it, which I’d never done previously, I realised that sometimes I only marked some sets of books once or twice a term. Where was the good in that? By the time the work was marked, students had moved on to a new topic! The marking was irrelevant! The second problem, I realised, was that the comments weren’t targeted at the work the students had produced; they were simply generic praise or encouragement.
To tackle these two issues I resolved to do two things: mark more frequently and regularly, and ensure that the comments I wrote were actually referring to the quality of the work students had produced and suggest ways they could improve. These two simple things seem so obvious now, but working in a culture where these basic things are not seen as normal and marking isn’t ever spoken about or monitored creates a situation in which terrible practice can develop.
Anyway, I decided to start tracking my marking using a spreadsheet (something that I still do) so that I could see when each set of books had been marked. This turned out to be a fantastic tool in supporting and motivating my marking. The visual record of highlighted and un-highlighted boxes served as a catalyst to ensure that each class got their fair share of attention and that no books were left for an unacceptable period of time.
The second change, the quality of comments, was also massive. As well as marking for literacy errors throughout a piece of work (which I’d always done), I began leave one comment at the end that embodied both some praise and formative feedback, for example “Lovely description with excellent choice of similes, but please revise the rule for using apostrophes.” Clearly this was much better. But I still didn’t see a lot of impact.
I began looking at other colleagues’ work. I determined to steer well clear of the frankly patronising and nauseating “2 stars and a wish” that some colleagues employed, but I did discover that one colleague separated out the two parts of the comment, beginning with a positive and then setting out the target for improvement below next to a circled capital letter “T”. Again, better, but still no real impact on progress.
At this time it began to be picked up by the SLT, thanks to a county visit, that actually marking is quite important (you’ll detect a hint of understatement here), and they began to talk more about marking and make their new higher expectations more evident. HoDs suddenly felt that the answer was to have pages that had more teacher feedback than student work on them. The emphasis was on the quantity of what was written, and this was reflected in the scrutinies. I am fairly confident that I could have covered those pages in irrelevant scrawl and, provided there was plenty of it, the scrutinies wouldn’t have picked this up.
And, as I stated earlier, still no real impact. So what was missing? From a 2014 perspective, it will be obvious to most: a lack of DIRT time. Giving students the time and space to reflect on their prior learning, respond to teacher comments, make corrections, redraft their work and enter into a dialogue with the teacher about what they have done. Couple this with high quality peer assessment and you have, in my opinion, the silver bullet. The gaps will close, the students will make progress and, if done regularly and routinized, a culture of learning and aspiration will begin to develop.
The last thing that we introduced, which I think really makes for great practice, was the use of highlighters in our marking. Rather than just having the two comments at the end with a positive and a target, we now colour code these in blue and yellow. Blue = www (what went well), yellow = ebi (even better if). The students know what the colours stand for and the students work looks great. We don’t cover the whole lot in highlighter, but pick out key bits that correspond to the comments at the end. And, if you keep on top of it, it really isn’t all that time consuming.
So, why the blog title? I few weeks ago I was discussing with my new headteacher the importance of marking and feedback, and he coined this phrase, acknowledging the potentially back breaking work load associated with good marking that isn’t carried out in a smart way. “Teachers need to be marking for effect, not marking for England.”
And herein lies the rub; great marking that has an impact isn’t about teachers writing a lot in books, in fact sometimes we may not need to write anything. I don’t like to comment extensively on class notes and things like that. Comments should be reserved for pieces of writing that are original and demonstrate a student’s learning and ideas and they should be targeted in a way that supports and develops that learning and those ideas. It should only ever focus on the work in the book and it should consist of questions, targeted comments, peer assessment and DIRT time, not lines and lines of generic blather telling the student how lovely they are and how much the teacher thinks of them.
This week I read Graham Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” ready for the @EduChatUK discussion on Wednesday. It is a fascinating study of student behaviour and learning in the classroom, but I’m not sure it has any new implications for most teachers. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but the key points of the book seem to be:
1) Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences
2) A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.
3) There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom
I’d like to discuss each of these in turn.
1) Everyone learns differently depending on their prior experiences.
Prior experience, the “nurture” aspect of the false nature/nurture dichotomy, is arguably the single most important factor in determining the performance and behaviour of a student in the classroom. Regardless of the school experience, a child that has spent the first four years of his life in an unstimulating environment in which he receives limited social interaction or parental feedback, and where the usual babysitter is the TV, will unquestionably perform less well than a child for whom the opposite is true. This is because success in the classroom relies on internalising “normal” social relations and a high level of cultural capital. The former allows the child to interact positively with adults and peers and the latter allows the child to make connections between his own knowledge and the new knowledge that he’s learning in the classroom (I have blogged about this previously in a post entitled “Ways to Change the Way we Differentiate”). So, although what Nuthall discusses is clearly true, it is not new. Good teachers have known this since ancient times. It’s very much an example of the “Matthew Effect”, as described by David Didau. What may be revolutionary for some teachers is the notion that we should try to gauge and understand a student’s prior knowledge base so that we can design learning experiences in such a way that they will connect to that prior knowledge, although I’m not even sure that we need to take such a vast variety of information into account in our formal planning, but rather we need to be aware of it so that we can differentiate effectively during our lessons in the explanations we give and the examples and analogies we use to clarify concepts for individual students.
2) A concept needs to be revisited at least three times for it to be learnt.
When we want students to learn any concept we try to demonstrate it and give them chance to practice it in as many ways as possible. If we just tell them or show them something once or twice, there is clearly no way that this can then be committed to the working memory. What I loved in Nuthall’s book was the metaphor of a “learning landscape” that we have to allow our students to explore in many different ways in order to be familiar with it. You can walk through a landscape using many different paths, you can fly over it, you can draw it, photograph it, map it and describe it. In the same way we need to engineer situations that allow our students to explore concepts in many different ways. So for example, this week I’ve been trying to create lessons that will allow my students to explore how and why social relationships are affected by social media. Their homework was to transcribe some examples of their own social media use. We read two newspaper articles: one about how there are marked differences in how the genders take absorb “text speak” into their own spoken vocabulary; the second was about a young woman who tweeted about knocking a cyclist off his bike whilst driving. We watched a YouTube clip made by a freshman at an American university on how his friends use social media, and lastly the students were given the space to study and make notes on the transcripts they had brought in. This led to them being in a strong position to understand the concept we set out to investigate (the effect of social media on human relationships). Again, Nuthall’s assertion is probably correct, but it’s nothing new.
3) There are three separate cultural spheres at play in the classroom
The argument that there are three social or cultural spheres at work in the classroom is an oversimplification. However, I can see that this is a really useful way to think about the classroom when dealing with the social aspects of learning. Nuthall suggests that the classroom is divided up into the public culture that we take for granted, controlled (in theory) by the teacher; the social sphere of the students that teachers are very often unaware of; and the private mental worlds of the students themselves. Students’ priorities are very much bound up in the latter two and to get them to engage with public sphere they have to be experts in designing and delivering exciting and engaging lessons. We have to be aware of the peer culture and try, as best we can, to tap into it and use it to our advantage. He gives some lovely examples of the sorts of conversations that students have in the classroom through transcriptions of recordings he has made. These show a variety of traits, from serious and active discussion of the topic, through topic related arguments about misconceptions and misunderstandings, to all out battling and bullying in an effort to recreate the social hierarchy in a new way. The implications for us as teachers are clear: we have to be constantly aware of what everyone in the room is doing and saying. This, obviously, isn’t possible, but we must at least try. Again, this is nothing new, and comes down, as always in the teaching trade, to the relationships we have with our students and the way we actively differentiate for individuals within the lesson. My issue with the three spheres assertion is that it dramatically oversimplifies things – there are in reality an infinite number of spheres in the classroom as people from different backgrounds and different social statuses interact with one another, negotiating and renegotiating their own personal and social identities through, and in spite of, the things that they learn or do in lessons.
Although I insist that there is nothing new in this book and that it simply serves to underline what teachers are, hopefully, already doing, it is still an important read for anybody involved in education, because it forces us to rethink how we deal with the issues outlined and gives us a vehicle through which we can actively think about and discuss them. Furthermore, it is worth reading just for the transcripts of the conversations the kids have. Some of these are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are desperately sad and tragic, particularly the racist name-calling that takes place as students from different ethnicities jockey to work their way up the hierarchy of their peer group. It is a book that should be on the shelf of the staff section of any school library and one that will help us to deal more pragmatically with the things that, as teachers, we often forget about or take for granted.
I had an epiphany yesterday. We were practising comparing and analysing a couple of poems, as you do at this time of year with your year 11s, when one of the brightest boys (on paper) in my class complained for the umpteenth time that “This is stupid! It can’t be right! It’s just words. I bet if you spoke to these poets they wouldn’t have ever thought this stuff when they were writing the poem.”
I went and sat with him and instigated a discussion on the complexities and nuances of language and of texts as cultural artefacts that can be dealt with separately from the author. We discussed the hidden depths of meaning that language has and how language is a vehicle of knowledge, culture and history. He pointed out that the kettle I use is just a kettle because it’s a kettle, so we talked about how the word kettle has origins going back to the industrial revolution and beyond, and that all the historical and cultural connotations are bound up in the word. Well, this really annoyed him because he began to realise that, in reality, words aren’t “just words”.
The student in question is an A* student in maths and science, and we began talking about how things either are or aren’t in these subjects and that invariably there is a right or wrong answer. So we discussed further the possibility that without language we couldn’t know anything about the world, and that the extent of our knowledge is bound by the extent of our vocabulary and that new words have to be invented for new ideas, concepts or discoveries, even in science and maths. This really got him thinking, and he finally decided that he just found poetry hard because he doesn’t like ambiguity. Clearly, this very bright young man’s brain has developed in such a way that it thrives on certainty and proof.
I began thinking a bit more about this. The main problem, to my mind, is that throughout key stage three, this student has studied poetry for three half terms (historically there’s been one poetry unit a year every half term where I work). This means that 46 weeks of the year in years 7-9 he’s not read any poetry worthy of the word.
Then, in year 10, he’s studied a few poems for his controlled assessment that he’s had to compare with a Shakespeare play. This has really emphasised in his mind how much he hates the stuff.
Next, in year 11, he has to study poetry to develop the skills needed to answer the unseen poetry question in the exam. Again, he knows that he has to do this to pass his exam, has already decided on and embedded the notion that he’s rubbish at it, and therefore sees this stuff as out to get him.
But then the problem is compounded, you see. All this is happening in parallel to him dealing with his adolescence and growth into young adulthood. This is a time when we are desperately trying to find out who we are and how our identity fits into the social world around us. We crave certainty and clear black and white answers. We don’t want ambiguity and confusion and ambivalence as this stops us from knowing who we are. And so, when sporadically exposed to poetry, it only adds to the confusion and difficulty of growing up. Not only are we fumbling around trying to understand individual and group identities, but we’re also expected to interpret pieces of text with no real correct interpretation. This has got to be the best way to upset somebody who is worried about their own uncertainties.
So what is the answer? Students should study poetry because it is the epitome of linguistic and cultural achievement, and they have to study it because they’re going to be examined on it. Therefore the answer is obvious. STUDY LOADS OF POETRY ALL THE TIME.
If our students are given a steady diet of poetry almost every week of their teenage lives, it will help them to come to terms with the fact that the world is a place with multiple layers of meaning that can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. It will allow them to deal with issues that they can relate to from a safe distance. They may realise that it’s ok to be a little unsure of exactly who they are. And less importantly, when they go into the exam, they will be confident in understanding and interpreting poems and in articulating their ideas about them.
“Stretch them and they will Soar:” the bright future of English teaching.
I’m really excited about the new KS3 English Curriculum. As far as I can see, there’s a lot to like. And I’m also in the very lucky position of moving into a role where it’ll be up to me to design and implement it. My interpretation of how to apply it is very simple: the students in my school will enjoy reading and writing high quality texts with ease and fluency. They will develop a cultural capital the majority have never had at that age through studying great literature, and they will understand and be able to articulate why and how language works and changes in the ways it does. And they will be confident speakers who can use and shape our marvellous language for a myriad of purposes and situations. All this will be framed by an intimate knowledge and understanding of the history of English Literature.
Ever since I began teaching, KS3 has consisted of texts like Hatchet, Stone Cold, Skellig and the others. These are all good stories that kids should be reading, but they should be reading them in their own time. If a child only gets 3 or 4 hours per week in English in secondary school, then that three or four hours really has to be spent in studying great literature with the help of someone who knows the subject. For so many years, we’ve shied away from actually challenging our students by studying texts that they we know will be easily accessible. But what a waste of time that is. Surely if we make the hard stuff accessible then the other stuff becomes easy reading for their leisure time? There has been a history of us as English teachers implicitly telling our students that they can’t study “hard” texts and great literature. They’re just not up to the job. This is clearly rubbish. And it’s also no wonder KS4 is such a shock when they actually have to look at some literature.
Last year I was having a conversation with somebody on Twitter about redesigning the year 9 curriculum. Her curriculum consisted of a rich diet of great work from “The Canon”. When I pointed out that it may be a bit much for my students, she replied with a lovely phrase that I have never forgotten: “stretch them and they will soar.” This has become almost a mantra for me since then, and it really is true. It’s a beautiful phrase that cleverly sums up and encapsulates the way teaching is going; one might say it’s the spirit of the Growth Mindset in a nutshell.
Let me give you an example. I teach a set 5 year 9 group. This in a vertical setting system and so consists of students who are considered to be the weakest in their band (teaching these types of groups over the last few years has made me become a strong advocate of genuinely mixed groupings, something I intend to write about soon). What I’ve noticed this year with these students is that they really believe that they are rubbish. They are convinced that they simply can’t read, write or speak well. And who can blame them? They’re into their 9th school year of people telling them that they can’t do things, and of support departments giving them labels and little stickers that they can show teachers saying “don’t ask me to read aloud” and the like. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!
This half term we’ve been studying the poetry unit. This is an absolute pet hate of mine – how crazy to do one unit a year on poetry in English. Poetry is the absolute epitome of linguistic achievement and the most fun (our new curriculum will have a rich diet of poetry all year round). In recent years I’d have read a few poems with them, drawn a few pictures relating to the imagery, created some storyboards etc. etc. And don’t get me wrong, we’re still doing a bit of this. But what we’re now doing in addition is some proper study of the language and how it works to create meaning; really getting to the nitty-gritty of the interaction between sound and sense and how the two work in a symbiotic relationship to create a beautiful whole.
So we read and compared three poems together: Leisure by WH Davies, Human Interest by Carol Ann Duffy and Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes. Our focus was on the meaning of the poems and how these related to the sound of the words as the poems are read aloud. These kids, who think they can’t do things very well and have the paperwork to prove it, were identifying and discussing tetrameter and pentameter. They were identifying feet and iambs and trochees and telling me where the stress was in the lines and how this forced the reader to read it in a certain way. They were explaining how the clanging and clashing of harsh consonant sounds in Human Interest reflects the narrator’s confused and desperate state of mind, and how the careful rhythmical control in Hawk Roosting demonstrates the power and majesty of the bird, and how Davies’s use of iambic pentameter structured into rhyming couplets ties in with the sense of ordered beauty he is describing (a few weeks earlier they also produced some very articulate and enthusiastic persuasive speeches on their pet hates, which they really shouldn’t be doing according to the little stickers in their planners).
These are kids who can’t do things and have the paperwork to prove it. What rubbish. They’ve just been allowed to fall into the trap of believing they can’t do it thanks to the adults that have made them that way. Talk about manufacturing a dependent and underachieving underclass of the future. The biggest struggle to my mind is to ensure that all staff in our schools are prepared to push and challenge these types of students so that they consistently produce good quality work that is worthy of the genuine praise it receives. It’s a steep hill to climb, but we’ve got to try.
“Stretch them and they will soar.” They sure will.
Teaching interviews are one of the most bizarre and testing interview formats there are, and a wise old colleague once said to me that every teacher should put themself through the process at least once a year. I’d go further and say that all teachers should try and have at least a couple each year. The last thing you want to do is see a job you really want, take the time to apply, get shortlisted, and then get there and realise it’s years since your last interview and you’re out of practice and consequently your depth, freezing in terror. Interviews, in my opinion, are great CPD opportunities, building character and resilience by testing your professional mettle, whilst at the same time giving you the opportunity to have a good look at how another institution does the job. I think in the last 5 years I’ve probably had about six or seven interviews; there’ve been ones I’ve wanted and not been offered and ones I’ve decided I’ve not wanted and been offered. I had one that I felt I’d have to take if offered due to the calibre of the institution, and was very relieved to get the phone call the next day to say I hadn’t got it. But from all of these I’ve had really useful feedback that has helped me prep for the next one.
In my first ever interview for a teaching post, ten years ago in June, I was told I looked too relaxed and comfortable, which translated into arrogance. Later, I was glad I didn’t get that job; the following year the school went into special measures and the following week I landed another job where, at the interview, I consciously worked on not looking too relaxed; I still take care to heed that advice and have never had a negative interview since. What follows are my thoughts on being interviewed, honed by ten years of being interviewed.
1) To job-hunt or not?
Every professional person should take a keen and active interest in the job market. I’ve always been happy in the jobs I’ve had, but this is the best reason to be always on the lookout. If you don’t desperately need or want to move you will be much more relaxed at interview as there’s no pressure to get the job. The compulsion to get a job if you really need to move puts unnecessary strain and pressure on you and forces you to view the interview in a skewed perspective, possibly attaching a virtually life or death weighting to the outcome.
2) Choosing which job to apply for.
If you keep abreast of the jobs within your commutable area, you will begin to see patterns in job advertising and learn to read between the lines in the adverts themselves. Why does that post have an R + R attached to it? Why has that same job that was advertised last month been advertised again? If you see a job that looks too good to be true, it probably is. But if you see anything that you think you might fancy, put in an application; it can’t do any harm, can it?
3) Writing a letter.
Tailor the letter to the job. As you apply for jobs, you’ll begin to amass a bank of application letters that you can use again. Some you’ll be able to use wholesale for different jobs, most you won’t. But you will be able to cherry pick appropriate paragraphs that fit the jobs for which you’re applying. When you write your letters, make sure that you focus on the relevant skills for the job. Applications for classroom teaching posts should focus on your ideas about pedagogy and be firmly rooted in practical examples; HoD type posts should include this but also focus more on your own ideas on leading others and middle leadership in general. Get your colleagues to proofread what you write, especially if those colleagues are in a similar post to the one for which you’re applying or ones senior to it.
4) Preparing for interview.
If you read widely and are generally interested in education, this bit should be a doddle. You need to be able to spend a whole day talking professionally about matters relating to education, and if you read a lot you will already be in a position to do this. If you’re going for a leadership role, it would make sense to brush up on theories of leadership (I got some feedback from an interview a bit ago that I hadn’t mentioned Maslow when asked about leading a team, which I found quite peculiar). But the key reading you need to do is anything you can find about the school itself. This will obviously include the school website and Ofsted reports, but you should also look for newspaper articles, school newsletters, and anything else you can find. It looks great if you can squeeze a mention of a recent school event into an interview as it shows that you’re genuinely keen and curious and is evidence that you do your homework and are thorough and conscientious. In terms of preparing a lesson, don’t prepare anything that can go horribly wrong. Prepare a really good “bread and butter” lesson with a variety of interesting tasks neatly chunked that clearly demonstrates the kids have learnt something new. Make sure that students are aware of the success criteria and have clear, simple learning objectives that are easily measurable (I like to phrase mine as questions: if the students can’t answer the questions at the start and can at the end then they’ve made progress). Ask for any available data on the class you will be teaching so that you can explicitly show differentiation and, as with any lesson, aim to challenge the top end and differentiate down. Put a lot of thought into your body language too and even practice the body language you want to exude on interview around your own place of work.
5) The interview.
This is the bit where many of us fall down, and I would honestly put this down (most of the time) to a lack of practice. Think about how we constantly tell our students that the only way to perfect anything is to practice it deliberately and reflectively, learning from mistakes and acting on feedback. It’s exactly the same for us on interview. Before now, you should have practised and hopefully perfected being the teacher that you aspire to be so that on the day it’s not a case of putting on a show. On the day you want to be calm and in control and keen and interested. It’s a cliché, but remember that you’re interviewing the school as much as the other way around. The best bit of advice I can give is to treat an interview as day of CPD where you’re looking at how another school works and engaging the staff of that school in dialogue about your approach to teaching. Think carefully about body language well before the day; when you get there you want positive and calm body language to come naturally.
6) After the interview.
If you’re offered the job and you’re impressed enough with the school to want to work there, pat yourself on the back and have a good drink; you’ve earned it. You’re in for a few days or even weeks of elation tailing gradually away to a constant feeling of warmth and happiness (at least till you start the job). If you wanted the job but didn’t get it, probe whoever you’re speaking to for as much feedback as possible and note all this down to use next time. Learn from your mistakes and try not to repeat them. If you’re offered it but have decided you don’t want it by this point, be totally honest and candid with the school. Let them know why, in the end, you didn’t find them attractive. They will want to know how a fellow professional from outside their institution views them, just as much as you will want to know what they made of you.
Overall, I think the key thing is to see the job market as something that you are a permanent and active agent in. Don’t see it as something to painfully and grudgingly dip into when you have to; rather, be in control and be part of it. It’s really nothing to worry about once you know it well enough.
Let’s not get hung up. Don’t don a lab coat. Put the microscope away. Bin the Bunsen burner. I’m not asking you to become some kind of Einstein-esque experimenting guru. Rather, what I am asking is for you to work out what didn’t work in your practice last week and then use the web to find ways to avoid it happening again. In the current fervour of educational improvement there is so much written evidence to draw on that to sit on our laurels is to do a disservice to those that rely on us i.e. the kids.
Flashback ten years: it was acceptable for kids not to learn if they were quiet and unobtrusive. Three part lessons were the way forward. Starters, mains and plenaries (read desserts) were the only way kid could learn.
But since then teachers have been blogging. Sharing good practice. Letting one another into the secret. Spilling the beans so to speak.
When I became a novice, great teaching was like a hidden secret. Certain gifted individuals were able to pull it off, but the majority probably couldn’t. Sometimes these individuals became ASTs; they had access to a sacred knowledge that the rest of us could only aspire to. HoDs pointed us towards them: “watch this and aspire to it. You won’t ever be able to do it, but please do aspire!”
But good old democracy took over. Hattie and Wiliam published their stuff. Suddenly it wasn’t rocket science anymore. It became accessible for every educator. Tell them what they need to know; give them the means to succeed; show them an example to aspire to; make success criteria explicit and provide a variety of routes to make it happen.
Twitter and the blogging sites have meant that the practice of teaching and CPD have truly become accessible for all of us in the profession. Suddenly we can learn not only from our own experience (which often doesn’t happen anyway due to a lack of dedicated deliberate reflection time) and from those “gurus” who visit on training days bandying about “the silver bullet”, but from the true experts themselves, those who teach 20+ hour per week and who are the real gurus. The future of the art and craft of teaching have never looked so rosy.
Clearly I’m preaching to the converted here. So, if you can, try to introduce a colleague to Twitter and blogging this coming week. It may be that the experiences they have in the classroom could be just what somebody hundreds or thousands of miles away needs to inspire and improve their own practice. You could probably learn from them yourself.