Expectations: Be extraordinary for the extraordinary

Written by: Fergal Roche | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Your expectations as a teacher are a crucial part of the learning process. Experienced teacher and school leader Fergal Roche discusses the role of expectations and offers some advice

The trouble with plans, goals, objectives or whatever we call them, is that they can limit our thinking. We are all different and, just because we don’t get something at a particular time, it doesn’t mean that we are incapable of ever doing so.

I once attended a conference where Susan Greenfield, the Oxford professor whose red Doc Martins are etched in my mind, fascinated us with evidence of how plastic the brain is; how it can change itself as it receives external stimuli.

Children, in particular, have no idea what their limits are. As their teacher, you have the privileged opportunity to set the bar wherever you like; to remove the limits of your own expectations, and theirs.

Teachers can make sensible plans for their classes. But those plans are guaranteed not to accommodate every child in their class at that particular time on that particular day.

Tim Oates, from Cambridge Assessment, tells us: if a child doesn’t understand, present the learning matter differently until she does, and make your mind up to do so there and then. Plans can only ever be guides. Only a teacher acting in real time can master the art of taking every individual on the fullest learning journey possible, making sure no child is left behind the others. Tough job? Good job.

Teachers are professionals, whose work includes a lot of technical craft. As the teacher, I am constantly scanning the room, reading body language to judge how each pupil is doing. One child, clearly bored, has already mastered the construct. Do I reward her for her work to this point by letting her sit around? Do I content myself now she has reached the target? Absolutely not. What would be the value in that?

I remember a particular year 7 boy who clearly thought it a waste of time studying English (what was the point of studying your own language, for goodness’ sake? He already knew it).

This boy was amazing at maths and science and enjoyed life most when it was presented to him as a puzzle. So I got him into Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books and made him write a sonnet in the style of Marvin Beeblebrox.

I admit, it was exhausting having constantly to think up what might challenge him further. Pushing your pupils to raise their expectations, stretching them to achieve the highest standards they can achieve, means also having to push yourself.

But it is worth it: a couple of years ago, now grown-up, my ex-pupil invited me to his office, the Google HQ in Victoria, where all meals are free, and you can play on a slide if the mood takes you. I didn’t, because it didn’t. But it was clear that the boy had gone far.

Progress charts and data-this-and-that can easily reduce teaching to technicianery alone (and if that word ever gets into regular usage, remember you saw it here first).

I wanted to be a discoverer of talent and potential, as a teacher. Yes, teachers have plans, of course we have plans, but how about simply watching the kids and seeing where you can take them? It is quite possible to believe in the curriculum, while also wanting to make it your own.

The class that was crazily competitive I subjected to my own competitions where I gave them points for doing well – and gave myself points when they weren’t.

In another class with strong characters who tended to dominate, I felt certain individuals never got noticed, so introduced a two-second applause when they came out with something noteworthy.

Though lessons were short, attention was lacking, so this gave praise while waking them all up. Excellent answer. Two-second applause, starting..... Now! Stop.

One of my teaching heroes was Terry Brooks, who always arrived late (bad), invariably had his shirt out (poor example) and tended to shout at us (aggressive). Not the model of perfect professionalism by any stretch of the imagination. But he was probably the most effective teacher I had.

He taught Latin (egad), and although this was not a selective school he assumed everyone could understand.

After explaining something he immediately gave us a sentence to work through. Then we went up to his desk individually. If we had got it right, he made us do a more difficult sentence. If we were wrong, he explained why.

The process was long-winded, but it worked. We learnt quickly. Some found it more difficult than others, of course, but everyone got there eventually. How? Because everyone was encouraged to keep up; no-one was left out.

To those who seemed to enjoy the complexity, Terry gave more and more difficult work, never fearing he was pushing too hard, or being too demanding, as many teachers – erroneously – seem to do. My little brother, a complexity nut, eventually won a scholarship to study classics at Oxford. He says it was Terry who really got him believing he could do it.

Teachers notice. They work at – and tear their hair out about – certain children. I remember one 11-year-old whose handwriting emerged from his pen like honey squeezed from a syringe. I tried so hard to get him reading fluently and writing along a straight line, let alone legibly. And although he never won a black belt for calligraphy, he did well enough to eventually become a solicitor.

He also rowed with Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, winning an Olympic gold or two. So while I can’t say I turned him into Shakespeare, I feel I did a competent job in not letting him fall behind. Open a child to the possibilities of learning, remove the limits from their education, and there’s no knowing how far they’ll go.

If you are feeling locked down in systems and plans and schemes and programmes, you’ve got to break out. Be yourself. You are the believer, the craftsman, the insister, the grafter, the cajoler. Sometimes you are the eccentric. Sometimes you are the plodder. It takes the whole mix to be an effective teacher.

The main thing is you’ve got to get all your pupils to learn. It is rarely glamorous, but the impact of your work is perhaps the single most transformative agency we have in society today, as extraordinary as the children that you teach. Remember that. And tuck your shirt in, for heaven’s sake.

  • Fergal Roche is chief executive of The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools. He started his career as an English teacher before becoming headteacher of three schools between 1995 and 2007. His book Mining for Gold: Stories of effective teachers, has recently been published by John Catt Educational: http://www.johncattbookshop.com/mining-for-gold-stories-of-effective-teachers


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