Hands up who has ever tried to lose weight? And hands up if you've ever tried putting on weight? I'm very sure that if you asked a room full of people in the UK those two questions (I mean, why would you, and are they even questions?) then there would be significantly more people with their hands up in reply to the first one. In another place, or at another time, it absolutely wouldn't be the case, but for the purposes of the blog post we'll go with the original scenario.
You see, I want to propose that learning to be an expert teacher is like losing weight. And conversely, that learning to be an expert teacher is not at all like trying to put on weight.
Let me explain myself:
I suspect that we start teaching with a lot of excess weight - expectations, misconceptions and hang-ups - that actually we need to lose before we begin to be effective.
What is a Teacher?
Almost everyone has a preconcieved idea about what a teacher should be, what they should do and how they should behave. After all, the majority of us in the UK have spent our childhoods interacting with teachers, observing their behaviours and imbibing a certain set of characteristics which we think a teacher should have. We'll most likely have come across multiple depictions of teachers in TV, film and books which add to our ideas about what a teacher should be. Some of us even spent time as children playing at teachers, either bossing around siblings, friends or cuddly toys. All of this shapes our view of what it is to be a teacher before we ever step foot in a training college or in a school.
It's all this excess flab that we'll need to lose before we come an excellent teacher. And although some of the experiences mentioned above may have influenced us in a positive way, what we remember are only outer manifestations of what made those teachers good. By aping their actions, we might not always end up aping what actually made them effective. It's very easy to watch a teacher do their thing and think that you can put your finger on exactly what it is that makes them successful. In reality, it is not that easy to tell which actions are the ones that make a teacher good at what they do.
What Makes a Great Teacher?
And, if you're an early-career teacher, it is even more difficult to discern what makes a teacher great when you watch them work. Often, a more inexperienced teacher can walk out of a more experienced teacher's classroom with a bag of tricks to try, none of which are the things that actually made the lesson they just watched great.
One of the main downfalls is that a less experienced teacher can believe that a teacher's style (their personality, quirks and originalities) are what makes them good. In fact, those things are more likely just to be the way they go about doing the things that actually make them good. If an NQT then goes back to their classroom and tries to act like them, it can be quite confusing as to why they don't see the same results - I should know, that NQT (/RQT/RQT+1/+2/+3...) was me.
"'Tain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)"
Sorry Ella/Banarama/Fun Boy Three/whoever else recorded a version, when it comes to teaching, that does not apply. In fact, as you might have guessed, the opposite is true:
It's What You Do ('Tain't the Way That You Do It)
Teachers as Experts
An introverted teacher can do the same as an extroverted teacher - both can be experts. A funny teacher can do the same as a serious teacher - both can be experts. Someone in a three-piece suit can do the same as someone in a cardigan - both can be experts. What I didn't get for so long was that I had to do certain basic things but in my own way.
And it's these more visually impressive aspects of teaching that can be the flab we carry around with us: the things that distract us from doing the things that really matter; the things that detract from the actual learning that could be going on: the comedy, the drama, the laminated things, the lavish displays, the volume - the things which all can lend a certain je ne sais quoi to lesson, but which certainly do not the lesson maketh.
To cut through the flab in order to discern what is really having an impact in our own practice and that of others, we can ask some simple questions by way of reflection:
Why did they do that?
What impact did it have?
If they hadn't done that what would have happened?
Which aspects of the lesson actually made the difference?
You see, an expert teacher might be doing lots of things that are only really the sprinkles on the icing on the cake. You might see them teach an all singing, all dancing lesson, but it's probably not the singing and dancing that does the trick (unless it is a singing or dancing lesson, that is). It's probably the really basic, dull, staid stuff that really makes the impact. Things that they do day-in-day-out: routine stuff.
Simple Things; Complex Things
What are these simple things? What do we need to strip it back to? It's things like clearly explaining concepts in small steps, giving children time to just practice a concept without distracting contexts, ensuring that equipment and resources are ready and available, revisiting past material as a matter of course, drawing links between concepts, allowing children who understand something to get on with it whilst providing more instruction to those who don't, guiding children through work they can't yet do independently, responding quickly, providing scaffolds, modelling, questioning, discussing...
OK, so often it will be a lot of simple things all at once, which can seem complex at first. But in reality, it all comes down to a few key ideas - a few more questions you can ask yourself whilst in the planning stage:
What do the children need to learn?
How can I break it down and teach it in the simplest way possible?
How can they practice it in the simplest way possible?
Is this aspect of the lesson really necessary to children achieving the indended outcome?
Hardly any of us walk into teaching skinny, eager and ready to put on the muscle necessary to become a heavyweight teacher. No, most of us probably walk in to teaching needing to shed a few pounds. What aspects of your practice might you be able to lose in order to focus on the simpler things? Which of the things you do in your classroom really have an impact, and which are just things that take up a lot of time with very little impact? It might even be something you hold really dear, but if it isn't making a difference, is it really worth doing?