A Tale of Three Lessons

Around the start of this school year, I posted a Facebook status commenting on the upcoming year being my fifth as a teacher, which is something of a landmark as a high percentage of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. I remember speaking to somebody I trained with about this and we were discussing what it was that made us hooked on teaching. I had been meaning to put something into a blog for a while, but I hadn’t had the spark until today…

Wednesday is normally a reasonable day – three lessons of geography: top-set Year 8, bottom-set Year 8 and then lower-set Year 10. I am making a much more conscious effort with my feedback and marking this year and am trying to work on the basis of ‘marking is planning’. My Year 10 books were marked and I had pretty much a full lesson revolving around feedback from marking, improvement time and then moving the learning on whilst embedding the skills which I had looked at in their books. That was yesterday’s after school job, which left me with my top-set Year 8 books to mark this morning before I started teaching. Unfortunately I realised I was going to run out of time. No fear I thought though, as I was going to be giving some general feedback and I figured that even those students whose books I hadn’t got around to yet could still make improvements to their work having done some ‘guided self-assessment’. Good idea I thought, in fact if it worked I may even do it deliberately in future.

Anyway, I realised that dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT) isn’t something that the kids are used to doing in my lessons, so I had to appropriately introduce it to them so that they engaged with it properly. This made me think of the idea of excellence, or rather Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence’. Whilst I haven’t read Berger’s work (yet), it has been mentioned in a number of other things that I’ve read and I am intrigued by the idea. Of greater relevance for me this morning though, as I was putting the finishing touches to my lesson plan (which I was doing on the basis of my marking), I thought it would really work with my Year 8 top-set. So I had a slide with ‘excellence’ and a definition on. When the lesson started I talked about what the word meant and that these kids in particular had real potential to be excellent (I know that every pupil does, but I was working to my audience!). To become excellent though, I emphasised that the kids had to put the work in. I couldn’t make them excellent, I could only help them to become excellent themselves. Indeed, each pupil has more time and energy to spend reviewing and improving their work than I do, because I have thirty books to read when I am marking, whereas they only need to dedicate their time to their own work, maybe a friend’s too. With this introduction, I went through some of the common issues I’d identified and the pupils got to work checking and improving. The quality of the work was superb; pupils were discussing my feedback, with each other and with me. The buzz in the room was great. Everybody was making progress; for some it might have just been practising a spelling error, whereas for others they were redrafting sections of work, adding new ideas to tables or polishing their sentence structure.

After the DIRT section, I then launched into some individual enquiry. I’ve done lots of enquiry-related work before, drawing on the superb work of Margaret Roberts amongst others. This was the best I think I’ve ever managed it though. At the beginning of our topic, on world sport, I asked the pupil to generate their own questions on sport. It took me ages to type them all up – they were superb. I grouped them into themes, linking them to existing lessons on the scheme of work where possible. I have tried to return to the questions every lesson. For this lesson, there was a glut of questions on factors influencing sporting participation, which we don’t really explore on the scheme of work, so I thought it was an ideal opportunity to go off piste. I displayed the question and got the pupils into pairs or threes. They had to decide which question or questions they would investigate with a view to giving a micro-presentation to the whole class, contributing towards the overall question ‘what are the factors influencing sporting participation’. I got the pupils to plan their investigation and then allowed them to do some research on their phones. The buzz was again superb. Their homework was to do some further research and the intention is to go into the library to continue the investigation next time. Whilst all this was going on, I was also able to mark the remaining books, discussing the feedback with the pupils as I did it. I left the lesson feeling as though I’d done a reasonable job as a teacher. Off to break I want thinking that I deserved my bacon butty.

Break passed by and into bottom-set Year 8 I go. First unexpected twist comes in the form of an unannounced trainee teacher arriving on a pupil trail. Actually I realise that I may have seen a SIMS message about this, but it mustn’t have registered. Launch into the lesson with a first task, drawing on learning from previous lessons. Throw in some atlases for good measure. Second twist comes when pupil leaves the room unexpectedly. Upon investigation I discover than some unkind remarks had been exchanged, so I spend the next five minutes in the corridor discussing this with victim and perpetrators. Whilst in the corridor, a third twist comes in the form of the cover supervisor in the next room asking me to remove a pupil from their class who was refusing to leave. So I spend the next few minutes removing said pupil and doing a Ferguson-esque hairdryer on the class next door, which I then make a point of returning to every ten minutes or so for the rest of the lesson. Sadly the trading of unkind remarks had not been stemmed by my earlier interventions so I was again in and out, following the pretty good PIP & RIP mantra (praise in public but reprimand in private). Come the end of the lesson and I was left wondering what achievement anybody, including myself as a manager of behaviour, had during the lesson. Gone was the glow of break time, but I could hopefully pull it back with my Year 10s.

I change sites on the minibus, really looking forward to getting the class in the right frame of mind for some DIRT. I had some good tasks planned and had the resources in my briefcase. Had a little chat on the bus and it was only as I stepped down off the bus that it dawned on me – Year 10s books are in the boot of my car; my car is still on the lower school car park. The best laid plans were suddenly going to waste. Not to worry though, as by my fifth year of teaching I have developed a modicum of competence in ‘threshold planning’ or ‘three-step planning’ – my lesson was finalised, or in this case amended, in my final three steps across the threshold of my classroom door. Luckily, I had the sheets for the tasks. We had been working on a six-mark exam question and I wanted to really emphasise the importance of getting them right, so I had written an exemplar answer which I wanted the pupils to assess. I got some red pens and we got into it. As chance would have it, a colleague had given me a spare interactive whiteboard pen yesterday so I could debrief the class’ thoughts on screen. They did a really good job, picking out errors, improving the choice of language and adding additional detail. As far as salvaging the lesson was concerned, so far, so good. Then I wanted them to have a go at writing a model answer. ‘Write this on paper’, I said. ‘But sir,’ one boy asks, ‘can’t we just do it in our books?’. ‘No, no, some of you have already got an answer to this question,’ I replied with all my educational wisdom, ‘I want this model answer to be original and not just a rehash of what you did last time’. They seemed to buy that. Indeed, I marked one of the boy’s answers and used this to emphasise to everybody the importance of proof-reading and constantly looking to improve our own work. I had some lovely stuff on feedback being a gift as a way into our DIRT lesson, but that would have to wait until tomorrow. A quick recap of carboniferous limestone, which was planned anyway, and I had managed to make it a productive lesson. As some small bonus, I also have a good chunk of the next lesson planned now…as long as I remember their books then!

So in three lessons I had managed to enjoy pretty much the full spectrum of experience as a teacher. I had enjoyed the pleasure of working with motivated students. I faced the challenge of difficult behaviour. I grimaced and overcame one of those (dis)organisational nightmares, which afflict some of us more frequently than others. I left one lesson feeling the planning and delivery was great and left another wondering whether planning could have made any difference. I had also been through another attempt of continuously improving how I do things in the classroom, of trying to make my teaching and the kid’s learning better than before. For me, this last point leads me back to the allure of teaching. It is that sense of incompleteness, of unfinished business, of unpredictable outcomes and of constantly feeling challenged to push on to the next level. It is a realisation that teaching seems impossible and that as a teacher you seem inadequate – for all the efforts, there always seems to be something more to do, something keeping you from achieving perfection. For some I can understand this to be soul-destroying and yet I think this is what draw many of us, perhaps the sadists amongst us, going strong and with ever-increasing determination. A big reason which drives me as a teacher is the moral duty, the potential to make a difference to people’s lives. I’d like to say that is the only reason, or even the main reason. In truth though, being an obstinate git, a big part of what keeps me coming back every day is that I’m a competitive bugger and I don’t want to admit defeat. I won’t be happy with being just good enough, I’ll do as much as I can to be the best I can. Lots of people say that teaching is the best job in the world and after a day like today (which ended with a 5-0 defeat for my Year 8 football team), I can only smile and agree.

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