During the initial stages of my PGCE course, shortly after I had started at my first placement school, I taught a pretty awful lesson on Much Ado About Nothing. Thankfully, I can’t quite remember what exactly went wrong, but I do recall that I rigidly stuck to my carefully constructed lesson plan despite having a vague and unshakable awareness that things weren’t going particularly well from the outset. Afterwards, my mentor told me that good teaching requires adaptation and she reassured me that I just needed time to become more sensitive to some of the common cues students tend to give when they’re struggling or restless.
Thankfully, over the years, I’ve become better at decoding student behaviour. Instinctively, I now know (mostly) when to push tired, disinterested students on a grey Thursday afternoon, and when to slow down a bit. And I can (often) tell when a response to a question reveals a genuine lack of understanding. All of this has taken time. When I think back to some of the lessons I’ve taught over the years, and a few quite recently, I feel a sort of crunching embarrassment at the mistakes I’ve made – but I recognise that the process of making them has been useful. It’s perhaps a cliché to say, but all of my blunders really have been learning experiences.
That ill-fated lesson on Much Ado About Nothing and my mentor’s reassurance has always stuck with me, and it forms the basis of my belief that experienced teachers (particularly those who have chosen to remain in the classroom) should be valued more highly. Perhaps the reason why this isn’t always the case is because much of the good work that experienced teachers do is largely invisible. I’ve seen so many lessons, particularly over the past couple of years, where staff have made it all look so easy. And not just in English, which is my area of specialism. For example, I wandered in and out of a couple of maths lessons last week and felt for a brief moment that even I could have a decent crack at teaching the dark art of calculating algebraic equations.
Fundamentally, I think the basic principles of effective instruction are clear: new material should be presented carefully and in relatively small steps, practice should be guided, prior learning should be reviewed – and so on. However, the successful application of those principles can be really difficult, and that’s partly because teaching requires such a high level of sensitivity to factors that are largely beyond our control. Every day at every school, there are a dizzying number of things that can derail even the very best planned lessons: buzzing insects, slow-to-load computers, fire alarms, the fight that happened at break, latecomers, unexpected visitors, blinding sunshine and lashing rain, whacky misconceptions, the Fortnite Season 9 release… The list could go on and on (and then some).
Adjusting to unforeseen and changeable circumstances in the moment requires quick thinking and a lot of patience. And this is where experience can really help. Sometimes, the difference between a lesson that goes really well and one that really doesn’t isn’t anything to do with the lesson plan or the scheme of work: it’s about having a willingness and the ability to adapt.
I should add, before I sign-off, that experience is obviously no guarantee of quality. As Dylan William highlights, teachers don’t simply continue to improve with every year of service. I also want to add that I currently have the privilege of working with two excellent – genuinely excellent – teachers who are currently in their RQT year. However, as a profession, I do believe that we need to place a greater value on experience and, as such, that we should focus just as much on retaining staff as we do on recruitment. On that subject, the Learning Policy Institute report on teacher effectiveness is definitely worth taking a look at.
Thanks for reading –
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My blog post on Top 5 Teaching Resources for Macbeth is here