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The Dangers of Effective Teaching Part I

The students were frightened to death of Susan, the languages teacher.

Her classes ran like clockwork and she was the tightly-wound spring at the centre of it all. When the timetable was released at the end of the summer, the holidays were quickly forgotten by nervous pupils realising which teacher they’d been given for French. They would look forlorn. Broken. Susan was a Terminator in the classroom. Cold. Calculated. All seeing. And I never saw her standing in her classroom, not once. Always seated at the front. Dealing out death rays through her eyes.

Out of class, however, Susan was a joy. Adult to adult, she was a wry joker and didn’t seem to have a care in the world. To me, a young teacher back then, she was a walking conundrum. She confused me because her approach, her stance, was the polar opposite of mine.

And yet.

And yet, she got the results. And when the time came for her classes to leave, Interflora sold out. She did the business. She was, in the words of Oxford University academic Ian Menter, an effective teacher. A professional who could run a tight ship, perform the functions expected and, in my parlance, be steady away.

But I could never be like Susan. Susan played the long game and there would be casualties along the way.

Susan retired fifteen years ago.

Times have changed. Ministers, think tanks and gurus have emerged and suddenly all we need to learn to be a classroom teacher is easily found online or in the last book your line manager has read. These are, in some ways, great times for the effective teacher, but, and here's the rub, there is a sense to me that the natural humane act of teaching has become corporate and mechanistic, whilst the blood-pumping nature of genuine professional ownership over what goes on in a classroom is being gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) eroded.

Even classroom displays show evidence of being branded by faceless money machines.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In my work as a Travelling Teacher I bear witness to much brilliant classroom practice that goes well above and beyond Menter’s baseline of what it take to be an effective educator. 

Such practice isn't led by effective teachers but by transformative teachers.

Once again, in my parlance, this is the teacher who gets it, the teacher who doesn’t just swallow the research thrown at them but behaves as the measured researcher themselves, investigating their own practice in their own setting. They are the teacher who knows the children in the room but, beyond that, they also understand the context they’re working in and, indeed, are players within that community.

And they have a stance that looks out into the world from the point of view of the child they know.

The transformative teachers understand that children need what I call protecting into learning.

Remember how you felt walking into your worst class as a child? Remember what a nightmare it was? That’s because you weren’t 'protected' in. The teacher was so focused on the subject, they overlooked the child.

When I teach Drama today, I know there will be children who LOVE it – the Glee Club Massive - but I’ll also be acutely aware that, for some children, the idea of doing Drama is horrific and it makes their stomachs churn. Like when the second-rate INSET provider says, 'Let's do role play!'. How, as a teacher, are you easing that churn? This isn’t about dumbing down, rather, it is about supporting the children in the navigation of what they find difficult. The difficult skills. The difficult knowledge.

In other words, are you bothered enough about being so much more than effective? [ITL]

Read part two here.

Hywel Roberts is a long-time Independent Thinking Associate and a self-styled Traveling Teacher. His new book Botheredness, will be coming along soon.

For more writing by Hywel, check out his Independent Thinking Press page here

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