Tuesday 3.15pm and I have become emotional. I finished teaching my last lesson an hour or so ago. A year 7 group visiting the college for the afternoon. Our own students left for the summer last week ands so this was the only teaching in the building today. Then it hit me. We are moving sites in the summer and I’d just taught the last ever lesson at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College’s current site. As I had merrily and with some relief waved the year 7’s away, so had ended 40 years of teaching on the current site. Although I have only been at the college for 7 years I was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of history. It sneaked up on me unexpectedly and so if you’ll excuse I will throw out my thoughts.
It’s very easy at times like this to get nostalgic and remember the good old days. I’m told that the good old days involved 2 hour lunch breaks, playing tennis most of the summer and one member of staff who would set his group work, go for a swim, and return to finish off the lesson. Yet despite these oddities and other things that Ofsted would no doubt deem inadequate, for 40 years many have stood in front of classes in this building and day after day brought learning and inspiration to generations. The horizons of ordinary teenagers in Stoke have been broadened. Students have been set on paths that have taken them to far off places both literally and in a figurative sense. I imagined all those staff who had gone before, both living and dead, sitting in on the last ever lesson at Fenton. What would they have made of this moment?
It would have been quite alien to many of them no doubt. Here a group of 15 or so 12 year olds out of school for an afternoon possibly to give their poor teachers a rest. They fidget and twitch, distract and insult. Yet these are the great multi-taskers. They are also engaged for the most part despite their limited concentration. This is widening participation in action. They love the puzzles on the presentation, the humour, the competitive element of the quizzes, the drinks and biscuits at break time. However none of them have pens and seem aghast that I might actually be trying to teach them something. ‘This lesson is boring’ announces one of them before he enters the room. I am amazed. Does he have a prophetic gift? ‘This is a cheating college’ says a member of one of the quiz teams who narrowly fail to take the prize. In years gone by this might have been an opportunity to use the cane, nowadays we call it the voice of the learner.
Whether we like it or not things are different. As teachers we now have technologies available to us that former colleagues couldn’t dream of. We can select videos clips on anything within seconds. We have more data than we know what to do with. However something of this job is timeless. The key to doing it well is still human interaction. The ability to be in front of a class and hold their attention, give them an enjoyable experience and inspire them on their learning journey. That’s something that technology alone cannot supply. Technology is the icing to the teaching cake. I have worked with some great characters over my career at the college and in school. I hope to continue to work with a new generation of great teachers. I hope that the Ofsted microchip falls out of some of us and we rediscover the creativity and originality that makes a great teacher. After all it’s the teachers that are different that inspire us.
Anyway enough rambling but as we bring this chapter to an end, we inevitably begin a new one. Every end is also a beginning. To quote one of my pastor’s favourite sayings; “hats off to the past but coats off to the future.” Every end should be marked and celebrated not lamented. It’s easy because we’re busy to rush ahead without pausing to reflect.
There’s much to celebrate and many people’s contributions to remember. They got us here but it is for us to take it further. The baton is passed. Tomorrow’s a new day; there is a new building, with new opportunities and challenges. How will we do? I look around the staffroom and somehow think we’ll be fine. Now who fancies teaches the first ever lesson in the ne building?
Recently at college I re-enacted the Parable of the Lost Sheep. For those not familiar with the story it involves a shepherd who has a hundred sheep. One of them goes missing and the shepherd, having secured the 99, goes looking for the lost sheep, finds it and has a big party to celebrate its return. And so to the college version. One of my students is lost. Not literally of course because we actually know where he is. He is at home in bed. Next day is the exam and we need to know where we stand. Will the lost student turn up? Only he hasn’t been to college for over two weeks. We need to know so that he can be withdrawn. If he doesn’t turn up he gets counted in our figures. A telephone conversation earlier in the week with his mother she revealed that although there were minor health worries he was well enough to be in but he didn’t appear.
Hence I decide to take time out to ring him personally. We have 3 different numbers for our lost student: 2 mobiles and a landline. I rang all three without a response. Suddenly something snapped. Having availed myself of the services of multimap, I got into my car and headed for his house. I parked up in the heart of one of the more interesting areas of Stoke-on-Trent. Having kissed my car goodbye I headed to his front door. Past the couple shouting in the front garden, past the barking dogs and up the path. A light was on in the living room and (although I cannot be sure) a shadow seemed to move. I knocked several times loud enough the shouting neighbours to look but to no avail. Back to college and the logging of information and alerting of pastoral staff. For me back to the classroom.
Fast forwards 2 hours and the Pastoral Team have played a blinder, They have found mum on the phone and been able to ring the student’s new mobile number. I get to speak to him. He assures me that he has been in all day and that no-one has called round. After a brief pantomime style argument about whether I really did knock on his door, I move the conversation on to tomorrow’s exam. I assert that he may be better to withdraw given his poor attendance but he informs me that He had intended to sit the exam. I ask which topics are on the first paper. He gets 1 of them correct. (We have gone over this just a few times this year!) I have done some revision he says. The faculty achievement tutor scribbles me a note to the effect of ‘can he pass? What do you think?’
Here lies the dilemma. He’s a reasonably capable student who with good attendance and effort could be a C grade candidate. But he has bombed on several timed assessments. Whatever he does will probably count against the department in terms of value added, retention or achievement. It seems unlikely but there is a slight chance that he could pass. He’s also got 5 days to get his head around the paper 2 materials. We will take the chance; it’s the right decision for him. Not sure about us.
What do we learn from this modern day parable? Whilst it is undoubtedly right that we make every effort with all the sheep in our care, I think my story differs from the Biblical one in three key ways:
1. The Sheep that refuses rescue: In the Biblical story the sheep is glad to be rescued. Some of our students are like the alcoholic who drowned in the vat of whiskey. They bravely fight off the rescuers. Still we reprint the notes they have lost, put on extra sessions for those absent, ring them to ask if they wouldn’t mind awfully attending an exam. Would my student who assured me that it was his intention all along to come to the exam have made it without the phone calls? Somehow I doubt it.
2. Are the 99 safe? In the Biblical story we are dealing with a very good shepherd who secures the 99 prior to looking for the one. When it comes to lost students I’m not entirely sure the same ratio applies but my real question is whether the 99 are actually safe? In total I spent over two hours on this one student. In between I taught a slightly under prepared lesson whilst my mind was on other things. I wonder how often as teachers our focus on the minority who are lost and seem not to care for their own progress detracts from our work with the majority.
3. Thinking, Knowing and not realising you’re lost: In the Biblical story it is obvious that the sheep is lost. The sheep itself knows it’s lost. Our students aren’t always that easy to read. The underconfident student spends much of the year seeking attention and telling me how much they’re struggling but actually they’re basically fine. They just need to up their game a little. For others the confident ‘it’ll be fine, I’ll revise for the next assessment’ hides a sea of confusion sometimes coupled with erratic attendance as they try to ignore or avoid the reality of how lost they are.
Finally contrast today’s events with another one of my students. On paper the weakest member of her group yet after 3 of the 4 modules of the A Level she has the highest aggregate in the group. Her marks are well deserved. She’s passionate about the subject, determined to succeed, and keeps going. One word, character! For others when life gets a little tricky and the course is no longer easy they crumble particularly if no one comes to their immediate aid to spoonfeed them. Some students have the character to succeed, others don’t yet have it. The problem is that we are dealing with people and it often takes us the whole year before we can spot the difference!
Most of the things that really matter in life are not instantaneous. For instance parenthood is a long commitment. It will last at least 18 years and that’s being optimistic. Take relationships as another example. Friendships, marriages, business partnership all take time to nurture and develop and can probably be destroyed within minutes! Consider also talents and skills. To repeat a much used analogy David Beckham required repeated practice to develop his skills at free kick taking. Eric Clapton did not leave the womb playing the guitar to a high standard. It all takes time and energy.
1. Turning students off the instant: Unfortunately one of the big problems we face in educating students is that society has increasingly gone the way of the instant. Coffee is instant, food is fast, a world of information is available on hand held devices. Our students are often ill equipped when it comes to the good old fashioned discipline of perseverance. If a website does not yield the required information in a second then we are away to the next site on the list. Likewise if an area of study is difficult, our students are turned away to the more immediate and easy. But education and learning as opposed to the automatic rememebering of facts to pass exams is important and significant. Like the other important things in life, it takes time. Education is a long game.
2. I must be getting good by now: I can’t remember where I first heard it but I was reminded the other day of what business experts call the 10k principle. Put simply it’s this. If you want to be truly exceptional at something then you have to put in about 10,000 hours doing that thing. In 18 years of teaching I reckon I must be close on to that amount of time. I think I am a much better teacher than when I first started but I’m not sure I’m exceptional! Much of what I do is now instinctive yet there is always room for improvement. Often one of our difficulties as teachers is that unlike athletes or musicians we rarely have the luxury of being able to sit down and assess our performance. Those who could provide genuine coaching, as opposed to the ‘I no longer do this myself’ type of expert, are busy exhibiting the art of teaching in their own classrooms. If teachers were a little freer from admin and willing to be vulnerable enough to observe and be observed by peers, free from career threatening judgements, then I suspect that the quality of what we all do would rise.
3. Losing the battle and winning the war. Finally we have to remember that the long game of the academic year or the two year GCSE course is much more important than the individual lesson. Sometimes we have to be pragmatic and accept that each lesson we teach won’t be outstanding. It’s not physically possible to be perfect. In my 18 years, I’ve seen a couple of colleagues who were truly talented be perfectionists and work themselves to the point of exhaustion. Perhaps some of their lessons were better than mine but they had more time off sick, more tears in the staffroom and ultimately ended up leaving teaching. The importance of pacing yourself cannot be over emphasised.
Remember teaching is a long game, the day itself is not as important as we believe. It is the result of the whole year that matters. Teaching is a long game.
Recently I hijacked a staff training day. Not literally you understand. There were no guns, no hostages and no demands but I stole a few minutes to share this. We had been given 10 minutes to share something that we did well as a department. After wittering on for most of my time on how we made exam technique more interesting (we really do!) I introduced my best resource and invited colleagues to look at it. It was in fact a mirror. The point is really quite simple. You are the best resource that your students have. It’s not the textbooks, the DVDs, the computers or anything else. It’s you. As much as the other things might enhance what you do, they wouldn’t be able to operate without you there to facilitate. If everything else was stolen or destroyed, you would probably still be able to deliver the course with just a board pen. If you were not there for any length of time, would the procession of supply teachers be able to do what you can do as well as you do it?
So if something is valuable you’ve got to look after it. If someone went around leaving the computers on 24/7 and pushing them to their limits, I’m sure something would be said. Yet we do this to ourselves. We push ourselves to the very limits. In a word, don’t. You are the best thing that your students possess. If you don’t look after yourself then you do yourself, your family and ultimately your students no favours. Teaching can be a very lonely profession. You are alone in a classroom (with up to 30 students) for most of your working day and devoid of the company of other adults. There is no one there to look out for you, to tell you to go home early and take a night off. We are not machines that can carry on endlessly working at full speed day in day out, year in year out. Often when we over extend ourselves we start to fray around the edges, we lose it with those around us and we become slower and more random. On the subject of randomness, it is not uncommon to see bizarre objects in strange places in the staff loos or staffroom. We are often in the midst of dashing from A to B whilst thinking about 3 or 4 other things that are urgent or pressing. Teachers often lose it in more ways than one! I have seen colleagues with perfectionist tendencies suffer repeated ill health, talented colleagues simply leaving the profession and in one case in a previous school a half consumed bottle of whiskey found whilst cleaning out a highly capable colleague’s cupboards. As teachers we are incredibly giving people, we really will do anything in order to help students succeed. But in the long term this can be deadly. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and be a little bit selfish for the sake of all those around us at home and at school.
9pm Wednesday. I am exhausted. Why? I have taught all day. 5 lessons from 8.45 till 4pm with just 40 minutes for lunch in the middle. 4 different courses in 3 different subjects each of which was reasonably well prepared and delivered with enthusiasm. The last lesson unravelled a bit as my energy levels faded and so did the students.
I have come home in an agitated state that I am trying to shake. I have been irritable with the children and as for the dog – I could easily strangle it if it chews anything else. I decide that I need a night off so attempt to go to an event at church. However traffic was murder and I didn’t fancy walking in 15 minutes late. So here I am.
Oh come on, you’ve just stood in a room and talked a bit, surely you can’t be so tired. Pull yourself together. Yes but the tiredness in question is a mental and emotional weariness rather than a physical weariness. Teaching is a performance and it takes it out of you. You are not yourself in the classroom. You play a role, responding in character to each demand. You have prepared your lines and perform them with energy responding to other characters with pre-planned or ad lib responses. At the end of a full day of teaching, it’s a little but like coming off stage. (My musical career was limited to a few minor acoustic gigs supporting people with real talent) The re-adjustment to real life can sometimes take a while. ‘Just let me sit here quietly for half an hour’ is a phrase that is not uncommon in our house.
So what have I learned today? That sometimes you have to be aware of your own emotional states and know that tonight is not a good night for big decisions or preparing lessons/ marking work. So time to rest and reflect. These batteries need recharging so that I’m ready for tomorrow. However this roller coaster won’t stop! I’m on stage again tomorrow at 8.45am. I’ll need to be up early in the morning (before 6am) to learn my lines for tomorrow. In fact I’ll even have to write them myself first.
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