I am an ESOL teacher and occasional teacher trainer from the UK. I am interested in teaching, obviously, but in particular in language teaching, teaching with technology, professional development for teachers and in professionalism in the lifelong learning sector generally.
So I’m going to post, in chronological order, with commentary, a board that evolved during my ESOL & Maths with ESOL for Employment class this morning. The lesson, nominally, was recapping shapes and reviewing positional language as they come up in functional skills maths. As a starting point we had a powerpoint showing images of rooms, and students had identified the shapes they could see in the rooms. The feedback on this led to a bit of a discussion around shape nouns and adjectives (circle/circular, rectangle/rectangular, that sort of thing.) I wanted to clarify what an adjective was, so quickly asked for examples, leading to jokes about “A beautiful teacher”. I overheard a hushed discussion in the room at this point, along the lines of “you can’t say beautiful for a man.”
Which led to the firs board: just handsome and beautiful.
A few moments, quizzical looks and questions later, and we had the following board:
which led to a whole load of discussions (like how you might describe a baby boy as beautiful, or what it might imply if you described a woman as handsome). This being a fairly low level class, the discussion around gendered language implicit here was limited to the observation that while handsome is almost purely masculine in use, beautiful is used to describe not only a woman, but also objects. There was a little bit of a quiet moment when some of the women in the group digested that observation, although we didn’t pursue it. After all we had other words to attend to, with their own set of challenging social issues attached:
Oh my. The word gorgeous came up from one student. So we had a bit of a discussion about who (or what) we would describe with these less gender specific terms: how we might, especially men, avoid gorgeous unless we were talking to / about our significant other (otherwise there are some overtones of page 3 of a tabloid newspaper). This was partly because of my own blushes when a student said “a gorgeous teacher”….
This being ESOL/Maths/Employment, I did introduce a workplace appropriacy theme: like what do you say to a (close) colleague who asks you how their new hairstyle looks. Most of the words we had already talked about had connotations of intimacy which might be inappropriate, again, particularly from a man to a woman, or vice versa. So I introduced the less emotive great. Which spiralled into:
Now, please don’t jump down my throat on the whole beauty isn’t just appearance thing – I realise that this is a bit of a missed opportunity here, but I was thinking on my feet, not to mention acutely conscious of the fact that the lesson was nominally a Maths lesson.
So we returned to our pictures, by way of a brief but unproductive jaunt to charming, and to the “official” focus of the lesson. I elicited and checked the key positional language (prepositions and what not) then had the students using this position terms resource to make statements about objects in the images (“The plates are next to the glasses.” “The pictures are above the bed.” and so on).
The discussions in groups led to the following additions:
The appearance of the cupboard/cabinet/wardrobe distinction is fairly predictable, I think, torch arose from a student question while clarifying the difference between a lamp and a light. Oak resulted from a little offshoot (no pun intended) about TV stands: we googled “tv table” which included, yes, an expensive oak table. One student rather wonderfully recycled the word trapezium as being a good shape for a TV table.
As a final activity, the students were testing each other by arranging playing cards for each other and asking, for example “Where is the king of hearts?”. This required, of course, a bit of pre-teaching to make sure we all knew what language to use:
Around and among caused a bit of a challenge, because they’re a bit more complex, but I had a squeezy corner of board space left to pop it into.
All of this leaves out, of course, all the other interesting discussions – the differences between slug and snail and between at home and in the house, not to mention Queries about why a unused chair is usually placed under the table, but when we are sitting on the chair, we sit at the table.
It was an enjoyable lesson for me and for the students. I had regular positive comments (along the lines of “this is better than maths” among other things), and as is often the case, it was the incidental language that the students were talking about at the end of the lesson, not the target language. Having been teaching fairly fixed content sessions a lot of late, it was refreshing to do this again. After all, you don’t hear a lot about “emergent maths” and GCSE English is profoundly driven by the exam content. I do teach English to 16-18s, but they respond better to pace and structure, meaning that this sort of meander tends to lead to disruption. Clearly the answer to enjoying teaching maths to ESOL students is very simple: don’t bother with the maths and carry on as normal.
“I don’t teach a subject, I teach students.” That’s a noble sentiment, isn’t it? It’s not so much an observation as an ethos, maybe even a philosophy, implying that one is committed to the wider education of the individual. Not just their learning of English, say, but their development as a human, a member of the human species, developing global learning and skills. It’s the kind of self-aggrandising statement which attempts to elevates teaching to some sort of grand calling.
It’s also, if you’ll excuse my language, bollocks. You may think that harsh of me. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being concerned with developing good citizens of the planet, or grit, or whatever it is people mean by “teaching students”: it is a fine sentiment. It’s just not right, that’s all.
With the exception of primary education (which I exclude from what follows), most teachers have a specialist subject they teach. For me it’s English language, especially, but not exclusively, to speakers of other languages. And let me be clear, I really really like teaching language. Not in a hitting-people-round-the-head-with-a-grammar-book, irritating pedant way, although I do sometimes do that, and have to stop myself. No, I am really interested in the way languages work, the nuts and bolts, the ins, outs, aboves and beyonds. And I’m also really interested in how people learn said languages, both as a child and as an adult.
As a result of being interested in these things, I am enthusiastic about them. Only the other evening I got quite over-excited about the difference between raise and rise, much to the bemusement of my students (it also led to a completely snafu’d discussion of the difference between lie and lay, which was embarrassing). I will quite unashamedly call some random facet of language “cool”, even though it does make me sound anything but cool. Expanding from teaching ESOL to also teach GCSE English, CELTA and the old Level 5 ESOL specialism, has only really served to worsen this geekiness. It’s not healthy really, but I do get terribly excited about things like the structure of the Landlady, and in what is either a nadir or an apex (I’ll let you decide) of geekiness described the Very Hungry Caterpillar as a thriller. (Assume you know nothing about the life cycle of a butterfly, and it’s a very different book).
Enthusiasm, even when slightly misplaced, can only be a good thing. Do it well, and it’s infectious. I’ve managed to get one of my students to read at least three books she would never have read, and to have a go at something a bit more challenging. It’s also reciprocal: another student has declared a newly acquired love for the great 19th century novelists, which has made me consider exploring the black hole that exists in my literary habits between about 1800 and 1930. Well, maybe one day, anyway.
An absence of interest in the subject, however, creates a very different situation. According to the grand social motivation of “I teach people”, one would be prepared to teach them any old subject, and I think this holds for a lot of primary school teachers, a profession for whom my admiration has only grown in the last 6 years of having my own primary age children. Beyond this, and things change. Over the years, I’ve grown to love teaching ESOL not just for the subject, but also for the students, and for the difference it can make to their lives: there are few things more satisfying than watching former students go on to do well, or even just to achieve a degree of comfort and security that they might not otherwise have achieved. It’s a great, nay, magnificent feeling.
But it’s not enough.
It’s not enough to motivate you to teach them something you’re not interested in, for example. I’ve been teaching ESOL and maths of late, for example, and honestly, I can’t wait for it to end. I don’t get it. For one, I find it hard: my mental arithmetic is shocking, my memory for things like calculating percentages and doing long division is truly shameful. I also find it, well, uninspiring. For me, maths is like cabbage: sure, I’ll eat it, if I must, and some varieties are OK, and I know, I know it’s really good for you, but given the choice, I prefer my soup made of butternut squash and sweet potatoes.
And it shows. Oh my, does it ever show. Not one maths lesson have I taught that I am at all proud of, and only a couple I enjoyed. If there was a Headway of maths, I would be slogging through that course book like a new arrival, fresh off the CELTA.
But according to the “I don’t teach a subject, I teach students” school of thought, the what of teaching shouldn’t matter – only that I am contributing to some greater good by teaching maths to ESOL students. The same goes for teaching, say, employability skills, or ICT – the sheer joy and satisfaction of making a difference should be enough for me to enthuse and engage students. So why doesn’t it? After all, I would describe myself as committed to ESOL learners, and the field of ESOL generally, and interested in their development both in English and in their wider lives.
It doesn’t hold because to teach anything you need to be interested in the thing you are trying to get people to learn. You need to have an understanding of the thing you are teaching, which implies that at some point you have to engage with learning, or gaining sufficient understanding of the thing. You can get away with it to an extent, as I have with maths, but the cracks start to show really quickly under the slightest pedagogical pressure. That pressure could be behaviour issues, for example, or even something as simple as forgetting that 27 isn’t a prime number. I’ve been on a hiding to nothing since that particular mathematical faux pas, yet my cock-up with lie and lay I could quickly gloss over because I have the knowledge of and confidence in everything English-y to compensate for it.
This works both ways, as well. There are many people in post-16 learning, for example, who go into it for noble reasons, but don’t have a particular interest in the subject. They simply want to help. Which is terrific, and I applaud their motives, but they need to think of something to teach. ESOL especially suffers from this, particularly since the removal of specialist qualifications, and the increased reliance on a voluntary sector. People assume that since they can speak English, they can teach it. Sometimes there is a natural knack for teaching that emerges, perhaps combined with really perceptive reflection skills, but this isn’t often the case. You need to learn how to teach the thing you want to teach, and you need to learn what it is: the desire to teach on its own is not enough.
Ultimately, “I don’t teach subject, I teach students” is one of those false dichotomies so beloved of those who want teaching to be a simple process. I teach English to students. The two things are part of the same thing. I want to empower and help my students as much as I can, but by far the best thing I can do for my students is not teach them subjects in which I am personally and professionally unqualified, but to teach them English. You need to be interested in both things, not in the cheap division of one or the other suggested by the trite mission statements of an educational gimmick merchant.
To summarise, and very briefly, the study looked at the impact of students attending 4 hours of lessons, plus 2 hours of conversation club each week, and compared it to the relative language development of a group of students who didn’t. It’s not quite methodologically pure, on my understanding of these things. In the sense of an RCT in a medical context, the identity of those who are receiving and those not receiving the actual intervention is meant to be hidden from all but the researchers, but I guess it’s close enough, and this kind of blinding is hard to create in a social context. Certainly the methodology suggests that the participants were selected randomly, or as randomly as possible within the constraints of the study.
The study was looking at two main outcomes: language development and social integration, and how these things are related in the minds of the learners.
In terms of language learning, the findings were striking in their predictability. Those students who received roughly 6 hours of language education each week, provided by a trained specialist teacher, managed to significantly improve their language skills. Although the provision in the study was community based, there was no suggestion that this was the reason for its success. This is important, and we will come back to this later. There were two genuinely interesting insights, however. One of these was that women with higher levels of previous education tended to do better than those without. A bit obvious, perhaps, but interesting nevertheless. The other really interesting finding was that those women whose children were aged over five, that is, old enough to be in full time education, did better than women whose children were younger than five. This is something that could be explored further, I think, although I doubt that this will happen.
So far, so interesting. What about the impact on social integration? Overall things seemed a bit woollier here: where integration measures were more functional, i.e. engaging with health professionals, schools and other services, participants reported higher levels of confidence. In more informal interactions, making friends, speaking to unfamiliar members of the community and the like, findings were a bit less convincing. Again, not terribly surprising: the social rules surrounding formal interactions tend to be more rigid: turn taking is more clearly defined, and the relative status of those involved is much more straightforward. In an informal setting, things are more complex, behaviour patterns and linguistic expectations are less fixed, more fluid, and culture-bound. There is a much clearer list of “things you might say to the doctor”, as opposed to “things you might say to Mrs Herbert next door”.
But that’s research for you. Complex, interesting and often not saying the things that those who pay for the research might want it to say. Not that that stops it being read in a particular way. Have a look at this bit of reporting from the Times Educational Supplement. The article has been updated a few times since I first read it, but in its first version it included the following sentence:
“English classes taught in community settings, rather than adult education institutions, not only work, but also promote social integration, according to new government research.” (My italics)
The sentence has been changed now, but that hasn’t stopped community esol providers badly misinterpreting the research (I’m not into naming and shaming on this, hence the anonymised tweet):
This creates, or perhaps exacerbates, a dividing line in ESOL provision which shouldn’t exist: an organisation that works solely in the community is not a competitor to a large FE college, not really: just different. And anyway, ESOL has been delivered in the way described in the research by colleges for years, even if, in some cases, funding cuts and government driven prioritising of 16-18 vocational and apprenticeships have led to a reduction in community provision. There is nothing new in this kind of provision, the research hasn’t suddenly highlighted some magical new way of delivering ESOL that hasn’t been tried before. No pedagogical one-upmanship is justified by this research. It’s a study commissioned to justify a government project: there is no research that compares different types of ESOL provision, and neither is such research needed. ESOL learners need a range of options, diverse provision for a diverse group, with good signposting and guidance to link it up. If everyone started to think and work a little more cohesively, a properly developed network could maximise the potential of all providers of ESOL, not to mention other elements of adult learning. Competition is not in the best interests of learners: instead we need collaboration.
Government priorities are rarely the priorities of students, and divided and conquerable is how they like the public sector. Misreporting and misinterpreting research like this plays into this discourse of division and competition, when in fact all providers in the post-19 learning landscape need to be working coherently for our learners. Which isn’t too much to ask, now, is it?
Language learning is in the news again. ESOL is making (admittedly small) headlines, thanks to a double whammy of pronouncements by “ex-integration tsar” Dame Louise Casey and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, highlighting the role of language learning, in particular learning English, as the answer to all the issues around integration. Not only is the musty “language learning = miracle integration cure” argument getting it’s biannual airing, but there should be a deadline and a level, according to Casey, by which time everyone should have learned English.
Oh boy. Where do we start with this?
For one, the Communities Secretary is basically presenting a fairly soft and woolly enhancement to the dubious British Values training which we have all dutifully completed, and of which I can only ever remember 3 at a time without googling it. There will be social measures like supporting women from minority backgrounds into work, which is nicely noble sounding, and getting young people from different backgrounds to interact more, which is so going to fall flat because it’s the government, the very definition of “out of touch old farts”, trying to tell young people, who are often, I hope, rebellious and questioning, how to behave. Even your dear author, who was, in his time, a fairly compliant and well behaved young person, would have sneered this out of the classroom just because of where it was from.
But what about language? On one level, as an ESOL teacher, who teaches English to migrants, and who likes being paid to do so, any notion of funding for ESOL ought to be a good thing, even if it is “conversation clubs” (really, that’s all you’ve got?) and funnelled through local government in especially chosen areas for temporary projects. Piecemeal projects that barely touch the need in any area. So yeah, money for ESOL learning, great.
The dangling carrot of funding obscures the actual issue here- the whole discourse around language as a tool for integration is at best simplistic and ignorant, at worst, simply toxic. The key quote that really sums up the whole problem is this, from Casey:
“I don’t care how we’ve got here, I don’t care who can’t speak English, I don’t care what’s going on but what I do know is that everybody of working age and of school age should be able to speak the language. And I think the public in particular would feel some relief. And I would be quite old-school about this and I would set a target that says ‘By x date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language’.”
There are so many holes here. For one, adding the weight of the mighty “public” is highly questionable. A generous interpretation of this might be that she means that migrants themselves would also welcome the chance to learn English, but I rather doubt it. It would seem more likely she means narrow-minded middle Englanders who’ve never set foot into a multicultural community, and aggrieved, poverty stricken working classes whose years under swingeing austerity measures have removed both voice and power, and for whom a very visible and even more powerless group can conveniently act as scapegoat. That is the “public” she means, warpping their chips in the Daily Mail or the Sun.
Then there is “one language”. She hasn’t specified English, but the context is clear – everyone should speak English. However, this is not, and has never been, a monolingual country. Would it help if it was? Is there really a need for “one language”? Does language unify a country? In the whole of the history of any country, there have been migrant communities speaking languages which are not the first language of that country, and the factors which have led to unrest and division are not linguistic, nor even necessarily religious, but social and economic. Division doesn’t grow because people in the communities speak different languages, it grows because they are being discriminated against, because they are being savaged by austerity measures, and because they are feeling powerless and isolated. These are social and exconmic problems, and these exacerbate any latent discrimination.
Leaving aside the troublesome notion of one language, I find the notion of a “date” and a “target level” more than a little worrying. What level would you choose? Entry 3? Perhaps B1? And how would you assess this – more money in the coffers of specially selected language exam boards? And what happens if people don’t achieve that level by the date chosen? Immediate extradition? Such notions demonstrate an absolute lack of understanding of the language learning issues involved here, although this has never stopped a government from making arbitrary judgments about ESOL learning. 90 hours to achieve a level-up pass, anyone?
Integration is absolutely not the aligning of incoming principles with some notional mainstream flow of cultural norm. Rather integration is a two-way process, where those moving, and the society into which they are moving, must both make changes and allowances. A mature society would recognise this, perhaps, avoiding knee-jerk comments like these. Of course, language learning has a role to play in supporting this process, and it is certainly easier and cheaper to teach minority language speakers to learn the majority language, even if a two-way language learning process would make for a richer, more open and more interesting society. Language also has a primary role in helping people to access support and services, and with this aspect of integration, it does have a crucial role. Beyond this, however, and to suggest that language learning will magically make it go away is disingenuous, a straw man created by government to turn an absence of integration into the fault of those trying to integrate. They haven’t tried to learn, they say, so it’s their fault. It’s not: most ESOL students are hungry to learn, but it has been rendered almost impossible through successive government cuts by both main political parties. The fault lies squarely with government, and their decisions. Improving integration starts at Number 10.
So I do a lot of coaching / mentoring / general supporting of teachers in my job. It’s usually a simple enough process: you get someone referred for support, you sit down with them, and then you come up with some things for them to try, which they try, and you basically guide them through some sort of reflection and adaptation process afterwards.
It’s almost always been a loaded process, with things at stake for the person you are supporting – particularly as it is usually linked to the lesson observation/quality assurance systems of an institution. I’ve had more than one new mentee break down in tears, and very often those first meetings you tend to be more of a counsellor, managing not only sadness, but also anger and frustration. This is especially true when the observer has made a pig’s ear of the feedback process, or when the observee has got the wrong end of the stick. Even at the best of times, the first conversation after an observation that went south is around picking apart the observation feedback and triangulating it with the teacher’s perception of the lesson and the lesson plan and resources. This is mostly fine, of course – it can be quite an illuminating process, allowing you and the observee to work out what the actual issues are, i.e. what applied to that lesson, and what is a more systemic, consistent issue with the teaching.
Observers are part of the problem. Now, before anyone starts getting shirty or defensive, every anecdote that follows is a fictionalised amalgam of experiences and general statements: but if you have ever done any of this, then shame on you. Observers are human, of course, and observing human interactions, and while they have training, they are rarely fully objective social scientists, if such a thing exists. But this means that things go wrong, sometimes badly so. One of the worst things I’ve seen an observer do is carry out a high stakes observation, for example where a job or a course pass is potentially at stake, then go to do the feedback without having decided what the outcome of the observation is. So the feedback implies that the lesson wasn’t to the standard expected, and that there is a cause for concern but the person providing the feedback never actually says explicitly that this is the case, and neither does the observer explicitly say that there are consequences. Yes, I know the observee might be able to work it out, but unless they are told in no uncertain terms what is going to happen now, then you have left a dangling thread of hope. Maybe I’ve just about made it? When that person finally comes to meet you as mentor, they have so much frustration, even outright anger, you might as well just call off the first meeting and take them to the pub and let them rant.
There are other, lesser crimes, as well. As a mentor, you and the observee need to know exactly what the problems were and what the specific required actions are. Now, I’m sure that many observers out there will insist that they are absolutely clear about this in their feedback, and will be sure when they finish the conversation that the observee has a clear idea what they need to do. And you know, that may even be true. But even if the spoken feedback is crystal clear, a shining example of precision and concision, eloquently and efficiently passed on, and extensive notes have clearly been taken by the observee, I still want to see your comments written down. It’s not you, you understand, it’s us. I’ve been observed enough times to know that when I get verbal feedback I only really take on the bits I want to hear, the bits I understand and want to work on, and the bits which are difficult, or boring, or which challenge my beliefs and prejudices tend to be quickly forgotten, if remembered at all. Yet it might be the forgotten thing that is crucial, but which remains at the back of your mind until you see the written comments.
My other big bugbear is the focus of the feedback. An observer will often be asked to identify recommended areas for improvement from the feedback. This is a great idea, as it will clarify what it is that the observee needs to do to improve, and perhaps even offer some suggestions as to actions they can take. That said, however, these areas need to be accurately and appropriately identified. areas for improvement that lack focus or specificity, for example, or, and this I’ve seen far too often, do not focus on the learning in the lesson observed, and are entirely based on supporting paperwork. If an observer tells their observee that they only need to improve their marking/feedback, the tracking documentation and the way they write differentiation on the lesson plan, even though none of these things had an impact on the lesson observed, then this raises all sorts of challenges. Because really, what is a teacher supposed to do with this? What am I supposed to do with this as a mentor? It’s a thirty minute job to share some marking strategies, another 20 to help them update their tracker, and ten minutes to show them the box on the form. Simple, easy, and, in the case of the last two, pretty fucking useless. If the differentiation in the lesson was good for the students, and they were all stretched and challenged, then who actually cares if/where/how it is written on a lesson plan? So what if the tracker is a bit shonky: if it’s a problem because of exam requirements, say, then sure, it might need work, but that is a management problem, and almost certainly nothing to do with the lesson observed. Even the marking thing is simply a quick share, and a check up, but these are all things that can, and should, be dealt with through other forms of audit and standardisation, like sampling of marked work, and not through a lesson observation focussed on classroom learning.
But wait, this isn’t one of those evil observers, saintlike teacher moments. Observees can be pretty useless as well. They can have the full monty observation experience: an observer they know and have a lot of respect for, excellent and accurate feedback, a clear set of actions to work on, and yet they still somehow fail completely to grasp what the problem is. This is perhaps because, as we found before, they don’t like what they have to work on: it doesn’t chime with their beliefs or their experiences. Maybe it’s new, maybe it’s a bit different. So it gets sidelined, and one of the jobs of the coach here is to bring that unpopular change into focus. It’s hard, because a teacher’s brain is like an elastic band that keeps pinging back onto the other things, so you do have to work on them, and sometimes sit in with them to make sure they are doing what they say they are.
Then there’s the “I’ve been doing this for years and it’s always been fine” argument. Christ, but that’s a boring one. As an observer and as a mentor, I’ve heard it so many times, and it was boring the first time. Maybe you have been doing it that way for ages, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need to change it.
The companion argument to this is the tedious “I did the same lesson last year and the observer liked it.” Same lesson materials and structure, perhaps, but a there are a stack of other variables. Most crucially, you have a different group of students, who respond differently to other groups. Or maybe you were in a different room. Or it wasn’t raining last year. You’d had curry the night before, not chips. God knows, but it was still a problem and so we have to work on it.
And that’s the other challenge; I can sit down and suggest things. I can demonstrate, invite you to observe me or a colleague doing those things, show videos, all sorts. I’ll summarise it for you in an email or an action plan. But it’s all so much fluff if you don’t try the things out. And try them out properly. Not just once, sulking because that coach bloke told you to do it, and what does he know…. No, you try it and you try it properly: give it a genuine go, and more than once. Anything new isn’t always going to work well first time: but try it a few times, and think about it. You might be worried about capability procedures, or whatever euphemism your institution uses, that may end up with you losing your job, but that should be the thing that spurs you on to engage and reflect and put things into action,
This brings us to the final point: reflection. I know that there are probably people who will disagree with me on this, but, on its own, the act of reflection is not going to change the way you work. I can think about a lesson until the cows have not only come home, but are tucked up in bed and snoring quietly, and it won’t make a difference to the way I work. What it needs is conscious, deliberate action. This goes for the whole process, in fact: unless you make a decision to put changes in place and then actually do it, the whole messy emotional business of being observed and of being mentored is a big waste of time. Willing engagement is no guarantee: I’ve worked with teachers before who make all the right noises, make copious notes, do all the training, and yet somehow fail to then take any of this and turn it into changes in classroom practice. And this isn’t in a passive-aggressive, “doing it to keep them quiet”way but teachers who genuinely seem unable to bridge that gap between feedback and reflection, and genuine change. You do all the right things, and so do they, apart from that one crucial stage of actually doing the things you suggest.
Sadly these are often the cases that bring people close to dismissal: this is not a cosy sector where underperformance gets quietly covered up because “well, he’s so nice with the students, and reliable” but a financially squeezed, pressurised sector where “rapid” often collocates with “improvement”, with scant regard for the realities of professional and organisational development. If you’re on some form of permanent contract, it’s pretty awful, even though you can count on some sort of protection while these processes are happening. However, if you are on a casual or agency type contract, then you quite literally cannot afford to be that person who doesn’t quite manage to change, whether you like it or not.
But this is the onrushing train coming towards you at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and for the vast majority of teachers, myself included, we sometimes dance at the beginning of that tunnel, perhaps even to the point when we can hear the train itself bearing down upon us, at which time we get our act together and manage to jump to safety. The trick, however, is staying safe. Fair enough you get reobserved and it all goes OK, but the reality is that unless you have genuinely managed to make something like permanent change, then next time that observation comes around, you are more than likely going to be coming back down to see me.
This post has focussed so much on observation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was all there is to supporting teachers. Unfortunately it is often a significant proportion of the work that you end up doing in this role, but it’s great when you get to talk good stuff with people: someone wants to try something off their own back and would like to talk it over. Or perhaps someone wants to run a lesson by you, or you just end up having an off the cuff conversation about good ideas. It would be lovely to have this all the time, but I rather suspect that if this were the case, my job would very quickly cease to exist.
I have, I believe, finally found the perfect lesson planning form. It’s genius, I tell you, and you will never find a better one. It’s so good, I’m going to share a picture of it.
Told you it was good. It is, of course, a plain piece of paper, in this case in a notebook, for ease of filing and rucksack storage. Lined or otherwise, I don’t mind, but these days, well, pretty much every day since I finished training, I use a page in a notebook. I used to like those big spiral bound notebooks, sometimes with dividers in (although that was a bit too organised), but more recently I’ve taken to using A4 size exercise books, preferably the ones with the non-glossy covers which can also act as a handy space for meeting-based doodling. They’re also lighter,which makes for easier velocipedic transportation: believe me, the weight of a change of clothes, an iPad, a notebook and assorted repair stuff can add up: not the only reason I avoid marking at home, but the main one. I like plain paper, rather than lined, but lined will do. I can be fussy about pens too: for preference, a black bic “crystal” ballpoint or, better, a Mitsubishi uni-ball pen, fine, not medium, also in black. In fact I’ve genuinely considered buying both pen and paper in bulk off Amazon, although that doesn’t allow me to indulge my stationery shop geek, during which I toy with buying alternatives then chicken out.
You will, I’m sure, have noticed the absence of boxes saying things like “starter” or “stage” or “differentiation” or “assessment” or “Embedding most recent government/ofsted/SLT fad”. Don’t be misled: this isn’t because I think this sort of thing is unimportant, although it’ll be a cold day in hell before I give more than a token damn about embedding British Values (and thus by exercising my democratic right to free speech, explicitly do this). No, rather it is because most of these things are built into the way I plan anyway, and even when they’re not, or when I’ve gone wrong with these things, including during formal observations with the boxes filled in, the presence of the boxes on a form haven’t helped.
There, then, is the key word: “help”. The whole point, point, in my mind, of a lesson plan form is to help a teacher to plan and organise their thoughts, and to bring them together in what should be a page, maybe two of concise notes to remind them what they are supposed to be doing, or rather (my top tip for novice teachers) what the students should be doing, why and in what order. I long ago stopped worrying about timing: it’s all about sequence for me. Lesson plans should help you to think about what you are going to do, think through your reasons , and then serve to support you during the lesson. For en experienced teacher, the plain sheet of paper may be enough for this, and for a less experienced teacher some sort of form may help with this.
All too often an institutional or teacher training course lesson plan goes beyond this simple requirement, and not always in a good way. I get it, I think, with the teacher training lesson plan. In this context, there is an explicit assessment element to the lesson planning and teaching part of teacher training, so there is a need for you to provide evidence to your observer/tutor that you have done certain things, as well as functioning as a tool to develop your planning skills, not to mention an aide-memoire, etc. during the lesson. It’s an assessed assignment, in effect, and like any assignment, it’s a chance for the learner-teacher to show their learning.
But what about the institutional lesson plan? This is where it all gets a bit split personality. On the one hand, the people arguing that the lesson plan form they are asking you to use will be telling you that “no, no, the lesson plan is to help you and make sure you remember all these key things, that’s all.” Unfortunately, there is almost always a subtext here of “…and we are also going to use it as a means of assessing whether you have remembered those key things”. Failure to include those key elements becomes a major issue, because, they will argue, you haven’t planned for them, even if they occur in the lesson. This is where, like so much to do with observation, it all starts to go a little bit Schrodinger. If you have observed, say, effective differentiation but it’s not written down, is it therefore the case that this is ineffective or less valuable differentiation? Is the implication here that the observer has no faith in the teacher? Can you extrapolate from this single point that therefore they don’t do do it all the time? This is surely guilty until proven innocent. Of course unplanned differentiation isn’t worse than planned differentiation, and is certainly a key aspect of live teaching and formative assessment. Indeed, any planned action is not always better or more effective than an unplanned one because of the planning
This leads me to the “support” argument for the standardised plan. Let’s say a department or even an institution has had “differentiation” identified as an area for improvement. The senior quality leader/manager/dude is likely to be a believer in an institutional lesson plan, and will believe, perhaps rightly, that their preferred form is the best for ensuring that differentiation happens. Therefore, they will decide that in order to make sure that differentiation is happening, all teachers must use the same lesson plan that has lots of room for differentiation. But again, the presence of a box on the plan, completed or not, doesn’t necessarily ensure that appropriate differentiation is going to happen. The same goes for a detailed group profile. I mean, I can write all sorts of stuff down on a piece of paper, but the presence of those things on a piece of paper doesn’t mean I’m going to any better at using said information. In fact, in more than one observed lesson, I’ve had differentiation notes written down and yet made a pigs ear of the differentiation. I’m ok at differentiating most of the time, I’d say; not brilliant, perhaps, but tend to rely on in-class observation of learning, monitoring and feedback, rather than extensive pre-planned differentiation, but whether this is good or bad is not the point at this stage. The point is that if there are any changes to be made, the changes need to be made to me, not the plan I’m using. Changing the nature, size, or number of boxes isn’t likely to change the way I think about planning, instead I need support and training.
The other argument for the institutional plan is consistency. It’s funny really, because I’ve always accepted this stance and never thought to question it, but it’s often cited that a department or institution needs to be consistent in its approach. Thinking this through, I find myself wondering how this works, exactly. My only thought, I suppose is that the consistency of planning format makes it easier to compare different lessons, and easier for an observer to make sense of what is happening because they aren’t spending time trying to work out what goes where. Otherwise, we are once more talking about supporting teachers to improve: everyone uses the same to make sure they are all doing certain things “right”, and again, the same problem arises: changing or insisting on a particular form may not achieve the change in or improvement in the teacher.
An institutional lesson plan form has one purpose and one purpose only: to help teachers of all ranges of experience, with a range of different contexts and students, to plan a lesson. Unfortunately, they so often fail in this regard because they are so full of the “reminders” about embedding various bits and pieces, not to mention some fairly clear underlying statements about the structure of a lesson and the attendant pedagogy that they are not a help at all. Lesson plan forms generally have a clear underlying stance on pedagogy and “what works”: even the much shared five minute lesson plan is pretty explicit in what it says constitutes a “good” lesson, regardless of whether you think it is right or wrong. The trouble with this sort of thing is that it s
So what then? It’s easy to throw stones, my own glass house notwithstanding, but what do we do? Is there a definitive answer? I’d argue for a free for all. Rather than having a single, one-size-fits-all set up, you have a range of different formats, including a blank piece of paper, from which you can select. Speaking personally, I’d probably like a great big poster on the wall above my desk saying “have you remembered..?” and will, once I have a proper desk again, be preparing one. Whatever; this way you’ve got word processed boxes for them as like it, the rather-more-than-five minute plan for the halfway houses, some sort of super individualised plan for workshops, as well as a couple of other options which departments can draw up themselves, with the option to use a blank sheet of paper if you want to. And you allow anyone to use anything. As long as it makes the learning in the lessons better, improves the student experience, and all those things, then to hell with consistency, compliance and all the rest.
They’ve let me back into a classroom. Well, I say “let” but I think “I jumped at the chance during a discussion about what to do about a particular bit of cover” is a more accurate description, but you know…. It’s not an ESOL class, which is interesting, but rather it’s a GCSE English language. I figured that if I can teach level 5 subject specialisms for ESOL and literacy, then I could get myself together to do a half decent job on a GCSE, especially when half the students are second language speakers. Now, I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “but Sam you have, at best, a patchy history or teaching other subjects: you hated teaching maths, loathed PSD, and have a confused relationship with teaching ICT, so what are you thinking??”
Well, three sessions in and I’m rather enjoying it. I’ve got to admit that part of the enjoyment is from being a cover teacher: you come in and do your thing without needing to take a global view of the course, or at least not too much, anyway. The supporting admin stuff therefore tends to be minimal, so you can relax to an extent, and concentrate on the lesson by lesson learning. If the cover does continue after the Xmas break, then I will have to pull up my paperwork socks a bit, but hitherto it’s been really enjoyable, Partly it’s down to the simplicity of being back in the classroom with students and concentrating on the bit of the job I really really enjoy – thinking of ways of getting people to learn something, and then putting them into action. It’s a comfort zone / structure thing, as well. I know classrooms, and what is supposed to happen there, and I know what my role in that context is.
There is a challenege, even if GCSE English language is within my subject knowledge comfort zone. It’s English, after all, and the students are adults. The challenge comes from elsewhere, in particular the challenge of coming to terms with the different demands and focus of the qualification. It makes you realise that in many respects teaching ESOL tends to be about the technicalities of using the language, and less about how to describe and explain it, but the GCSE assumes that many of the basic technicalities of using language are there (word order, tenses, a certain level of vocabulary, that sort of thing), and that students need to learn about explaining and analysing that language. The needs of first language, or first language type learners are quite different: they don’t need reminding about articles, tenses, word order and the rest on that deep implicit level, but rather develop an explicit meta-awareness of the language they are using. We’ve been looking at Paper 1 which is a section on analysing text: a literature element, if you like, and it’s interesting to come back to more literary concepts such as metaphor, simile, and personification after a fairly hefty break (20 years or so since I last worried about such things). It’s been a proper pleasure rediscovering what is, for me, the joy in language at this level, which would probably explain my slightly manic delivery.
The other part of the challenge is the diversity of the group. The diversity of ages, backgrounds and motivations among the rest of the group makes for an interesting, engaging mix of people who fall outside my more familiar remit of ESOL: even the students with an ESOL background in the class have a different set of needs and challenges to when they are in an ESOL setting. That diversity, so complex and so hard to capture into neat “differentiation” boxes on a lesson plan, is what makes the group so interesting. You get those snippets of the students’ backgrounds, the dinner lady, the school dropout, the former refugee; the people with hopes and university aspirations. It’s a different kind of heartbreaking to teaching ESOL when your students didn’t succeed at school, didn’t go to college, and now find themselves trying to piece back together some semblance of prospect. Even though I’ve only taught the group three times, I’ve already picked up on some of the mistakes, tragedies and social abandonment that have led to these individuals missing out, and in so many ways I find myself very aware of how these things could quite easily have happened to me, in a much more direct and relatable way than sometimes you have with ESOL learners. Don’t get me wrong: ESOL is where my heart, rage and passion lie, but it’s (happily) unlikely that I’ll ever need to migrate to another country any time soon. However, my small-town late-teenage self could very easily have had to give up A-levels to support a baby, or been diagnosed with a debilitating illness, or simply made decisions that didn’t pan out.
All of which pulls together the ideas which have been running through my last few blog posts. I’ve always said that for me this job is as much about love for your subject as it is about love for the students and the learning (I’m wary of anyone who does it solely for the students, or to give something back to the community, or whatever. Such people are crazed idealists, and cannot be trusted). I fear I have been making a mountain out of a molehill, because really, all it boils down to is that I like teaching, and despite years of training teachers and supporting teachers, writing blogs and articles, doing research, running workshops, and all that sort of thing, I still have lots and lots to learn from it. I’m not done with classroom teaching, and neither, I hope, is it done with me.
One of the very best things about blogging and writing generally is when something you write, or say, becomes the prompt for, or the focus of a debate, and when that debate includes some fine minds and mighty voices, it is genuinely an instructive and informative experience. However, it’s also rare that someone responds in detail, so when I saw this impassioned response to my original post it was tremendously exciting. I absolutely prompt you to read it, particularly if you are thinking about management roles and are having a quandary because of people (well, me, anyway) whinging about them all the time.
As is the way with such things, he’s absolutely right (and with more experience at it than me, why wouldn’t he be?) but I disagree on a couple of points. For one, the manager who views learners as data does exist, but, and I don’t know if I made this point properly, not at every level. A manager can be the immediate line manager of teachers, for example, and have a responsibility for their professional well-being and performance, as well as having a direct responsibility for the students under the aegis of those teachers. But my point here was not meant to read that all managers are organisationally-frenzied data-junkies (but I bet there’s a few), but rather that the distance from students does grow as you move to more senior roles in an institution. It has to, because the human brain simply cannot hold the individual stories of that many students, and because a part of your role becomes reporting that data upwards. On the teacher level, a student who has failed her exam and hasn’t a resit because she was about to give birth becomes a figure which you have to report and explain to your line manager, because they have to report upwards as to why the achievement rates are down in that team. But much beyond this and there simply isn’t time to process much more than “a fail, but with good reason, so we’ll take it on the chin.” A couple more links along the reporting chain and even that detail can be lost. But this is perhaps less a comment on managers, than it is a comment on the role of data in an institution, and about the ominous presence of unsympathetic audit and slavish accountability in a cash-strapped sector.
I’d also like to point out that I like to think that I’ve blogged sympathetically before about the challenge of being in the lower echelons of management. I’d probably change a couple of things (reading it now, and in sections presents managers as disempowered unquestioning drones, which I regret), but I still stand by the dig about best practice, and, most importantly, that sense of the line manager acting as a buffer between stroppy teachers, stroppy students and a senior management who are themselves pretty stroppy because of the ignominious tosh that gets thrown at the sector as a whole by people who either should keep their business to themselves, or should learn more about the sector before commenting. (The former Head Death Eater for Ofsted in the link, by the way, fits into both categories). It’s hard, and yet it is rewarding.
I absolutely did miss a valid point. As our man suggests, one doesn’t go into management because you love data, but because you love people, and management is more about managing people than it is about data. My throwaway line about cat herding was glib, and failed to dig into the detail enough. The line manager of a group of teachers has to deal with the complexities of those people’s lives and the issues they have, and for missing this point I am genuinely apologetic. Writing as someone who is either a nightmare to line manage, or (more likely) fairly mundane but thinks he is a nightmare because he’s an egotistical snot, I can imagine that this is a challenge, and an interesting one at that.
But, and the whole online discussion that followed rather dwelt on management and the whys and why nots, but still missed my original point. Even allowing for this more realistic and far better view of what it means to be a manager, however, it still might not be entirely for you. Perhaps you can honestly evaluate your own skills and say that actually I’d be no good at it. I’m not so sure anyone can be a good manager – I’m a bit of a believer in talent and personality, I’m afraid, which I know is a terribly unpopular thing these days of growth mindset and whatnot, and personality is a big part of managing people. I can do empathy and listening, for sure, but I’m not sure I have the necessary a inner steel that enables you to not only nudge when necessary, but to nudge and mean it. It’s not so much that management isn’t made for me, but rather that I’m not made for management.
Whatever – the debate could rumble on. Yet so what if it isn’t for you, for whatever reason? Many institutions, like the businesses they seem so keen to emulate, have a culture of aspiration that is centred around management, and this can sometimes suggest that an absence of aspiration to management is a bad thing. All I wanted to say is that aspiration can take many many forms, and you simply have to choose the one that works for you. And if that is managing people, then I join my voice to the Chimpster’s and encourage you to get your act together and start applying.
When you reach a particular point in your career as a teacher, you start to look at some options. Not because you’re fed up of teaching, perhaps, but just because you want a bit of a change, a bit of an alternative, to change your focus a little. So you explore the choices – what can I do now, what can I become? What choices do I have in terms of progression from the status of being just a teacher?
In FE, you’ve got three basic choices, and even then two of them basically only lead into the third. The first option is teacher training. It’s quite a fun option, although in many ways it takes the most confidence to pull off properly: after all, you, a mere teacher, suddenly telling people what they should be doing? And judging their ability to do it? As a teacher trainer, remember, there’s no formal seniority saying that you’re superior in some way. You’re just another teacher, albeit one who teaches teachers. But it is great fun, and keeping that sense of humility around your own abilities is a real asset in a trainer – trainees respond well because you, like them, are a teacher. Nobody, as they say, likes a smartass.
Related to this is option 2: the advanced practitioner. These jobs (and the job titles) vary from place to place, but usually involve a bit of time off teaching and, if you’re lucky, a bit of extra money. It’s not that dissimilar to the teacher training role, in that you are responsible for training and supporting staff, but has the added drawback that such jobs are very few and far between. You also have to be a little more subservient to the systems – being an advanced practitioner type usually means a degree of compliance – as a teacher trainer you are free, indeed absolutely should be questioning and challenging the latest diktat from government or senior leaders, but less so for the advanced practitioner role. If you’re lucky the role can include some element of challenging and questioning whatever “best practice” you are supposed to be sharing that week, but there is still an official line to be toed.
The third, and final option is, of course, management. Just to make one thing abundantly clear here: I have no beef with management as a concept, or indeed with managers as a species. After all, cats need herding and being a damn good cat-herder is a vocation and a passion in and of itself. But it isn’t for everyone; in fact it isn’t for a lot of people, including some people who become managers. And the reason deeply unsuitable people become managers is that for the most part, that’s all you’ve got to move into beyond being a teacher. Management pays better, as a rule, and you get to go to meetings and have important sounding job titles, and do weird mystical things with Excel which even the people at Microsoft have yet to think of. But also you inevitably start to move away from students as individuals, and the art/skill/craft/whatever of teaching; indeed, once you reach a particular level, the majority of students exist in your life as data to be sorted, sliced and drilled down into. Again, the best managers strike a balance there, but to be good at it, you’ve got to want to do it.
So what do you do? For one, you look sideways. After all, you’re not in it for the money, so accept your financial lot, and look at things beyond the four walls of your institution. Explore possibilities beyond just teaching: writing, workshops at conferences, supporting professional organisations, activism, all those things and more. You may not get the financial recognition, nor the recognition from your employer, but you know what, who cares? You position yourself as a professional outside of the confines of your workplace. There is a huge community of teachers and other professionals out there in the big wide world so find them and talk to them. Blog, tweet, make connections, talk to people. Do some research (like the Practitioner Research programme from the ETF) and use this to enable you to meet and share ideas with people – one of the best formative experiences of my professional life, in fact. What the hell, do something on the side which is completely different – become a masseuse, a choir singer, a part time pilot or volunteer part time at a homeless shelter. It might not be teaching, but who knows what possibilities might present themselves off the back of it. And yes, these things will eat into your private time, but from what I’ve seen of managers, so does that. So why not give up a little of that time doing something you enjoy rather than have a job you are merely tolerating because there are no other options out there.
The other big alternative is simply this: stick with the teaching. There is no shame in just being a teacher, no matter what career progression junkies might tell you (as in “Well, of course, I realised after my first six months that just being a teacher wasn’t enough of a challenge” – feel free to punch that sort of individual). Enjoy it and explore your own path within that role. Mix it up a little, try new things out. Teach different student groups, dabble in other subjects, if you can. You’re bored of doing it that way? Do it differently, try a different method, something completely off the wall and see what happens. Doing this teaching stuff can be the best fun you can get in a professional life. And it’s infinitely more fun than spreadsheets.
Habits are a hard thing to change, Not impossible, mind you, but hard. Thus it is I find myself three weeks into a new job that, and this is crucial, involves no teaching. None at all. And you know what, I miss it, I really really miss it. I don’t miss the attendant admin crap, and I don’t miss teaching the 16-18s I was teaching up to half term; even if I had sort of got used to them, I still never quite got to the point of genuinely liking the experience of teaching them. But I miss teaching generally.
I miss the structure. I’ve had a timetable for pretty much every week of my working life for the last 17 years, and suddenly that’s gone. Sure I get to make my own “timetable”, working to the patterns the job requires, and I get a lot of flexibility that a timetable simply doesn’t allow for, but it doesn’t quite fill the gaps, mentally speaking. In part, perhaps, this is habit formation, very mild anxiety even, and having that structure can create a lot of security to your daily routine. Like creating routines in class so your students know what’s going on and what is expected of them, a timetable creates a routine which allows you much the same thing. It’s not a major thing, mind, indeed, having these things shaken up a bit can be quite a creative challenge.
I miss the students. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with teachers, and just people generally, but I really miss working with students. I know, consciously, that supporting teachers is supporting students (the careerist manager’s justification for ditching teaching at the first management job they see), but that’s not what I mean. It’s those interactions I miss, the push and pull of the classroom and the dawning lightbulb moments, trying to make someone understand something and it doesn’t seem to go in until, finally, it slots into place. Most of the students I meet are a fairly open, enquiring bunch, there to learn something, and with a lot to gain from coming to the class. Even the nicest, most open and engaging teachers I meet are only a management form away from resenting training and learning, worried about attendance, achievement, enrolments, filling in those forms, catching up with marking and being generally stressed. They are students, in a sense, but they are also colleagues and friends, which creates a very different dynamic in a learning setting,
I miss the creativity. Let’s be honest, once you’re out of significant teaching, the opportunities for creativity become somewhat limited. Oh, I have to run sessions for teachers, but this is the only real outlet for this side of things. I don’t think teachers are prone to call themselves creative, but even the most restrained tutor following a standard coursebook, scheme of work and lesson plan still uses an amazing amount of creativity while planning and teaching. Even if it’s out of boredom, you want to do each lesson differently to the last one, change things around, mix them up. You get creative. You are not just being creative before the lesson either, but also during a lesson: thinking on your feet and trying a different angle because you realise they’ve missed something. It’s lovely, and fun, and engaging and interesting: it’s this side of things that I probably, in my secret heart of hearts, enjoy the most about teaching. I feel morally obliged to say, of course, that I do it for the students, but I also (mostly) do it because those processes of getting people to learn stuff excites and engages me. And in the nicest possible way, I don’t get that from meetings and spreadsheets. Sorry, and that, but I don’t.
Every time an internal management job comes up I get asked if I’m going to apply for it, and I always get tempted, I always toy with the idea. I’m certainly mentally capable of such a role. However, I’m not temperamentally capable. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? I couldn’t turn my back on that direct contact with students, not permanently. If this new job becomes permanent (its complicated, don’t ask) then I would have to get some teaching, because without it I will almost certainly go slightly mad.
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