Teaching: What I wish I knew back then...

Written by: Fergal Roche | Published:
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With the joy of hindsight from his years at the chalkface and as a school leader, how would Fergal Roche start again as a teacher if he could use the knowledge he has today?

Now look, I reckon I was a pretty good teacher. But I was often stressed, usually tired, and always felt I wasn’t working hard enough. Had I known back then what I know now, I would have been an amazing teacher. If only...

I spent much of this summer trying to remember the teachers and lecturers who were effective in my learning. Notice I don’t say “who inspired me”. Teachers don’t have to inspire to make their impact; they just need to make sure that learning has taken place.

Okay, it’s more than that: they have to imbibe a curriculum, transforming it into a learning journey for every child in their class.

My Spanish teacher, Jeremy Attlee, was rarely inspirational. Our journey was through a text book, Nos Ponemos en Camino, which also wouldn’t have won any awards. Mr Atlee took us from chapter one to chapter two, all the way through to chapter 25.

Then guess what? We moved on to book two. Hardly an inspirational journey. But Mr Attlee always made sure we understood all the grammar and vocabulary we encountered. He was forever testing us. Each time he explained something new he asked questions to check we had learnt it. He was hugely encouraging.

When I thought about dropping out, he insisted I was perfectly capable and should keep going. So I did. Gracias, señor.

Why did I work my butt off as a teacher? I was up all hours, forcing myself to mark complete sets of books, give grades, write reports the night before they were due. I think I enjoyed the martyrdom: look what I am doing for these children! I am giving my life for them.

And if I had continued like that, I probably would have done: here lies one knackered teacher, aged 34. He gave his all. R.I.P.

Teaching can be effective and still be manageable. It needs to focus exclusively on bringing about learning.

Neither fancy displays, nor amazingly choreographed lessons, nor painstakingly produced worksheets are guaranteed to get the best return on your investment.

If that sounds commercial, so be it. You put in X amount of effort as a teacher. You should aim to get at least 3X returned in the volume of learning that takes place.

I wish I had acknowledged that some text books were good enough to use in class. I didn’t have to produce all my own learning materials. Who was I trying to impress? Several of the most effective teachers I had at school used text books. Whitmarsh for French, Wilding for Latin. These took us through the subject in well-worked stages. The teacher’s job, meanwhile, was to check that everyone stayed on task, engaged and learning, and to contextualise lessons for certain students in the class.

As an English teacher I was more conscious of the quantity of work I made them do than on the quality of the learning taking place. It was a point of pride to me that my pupils would do numerous written pieces in their books before half-term – and that each one would be marked fully. Not for me the “B+ Good”.

I showed my individual relationship with each child through my marking, writing reams by way of feedback.

Yes, I know. Totally crazy.

I wanted my lessons to be spectacles, works of art, entertaining, fun. The effort required to make them like that was huge. My lessons may have been memorable, but was the learning effective? I’m not at all sure. My effort-to-learning ratio was not in the top tier, I would say.

So how on earth would I work if I were in the classroom today?

First, I’d determine I was going to enjoy the job, be effective and stay sane. I’d write a list of everything I did as a teacher, scoring each activity out of five to assess how much of an impact it had in bringing about effective learning.

I would then promise myself to minimise the time I spent on low-scoring activities, trying to kill them completely in fact, while maximising time spent on the biggies. This would mean thinking much more precisely about what I wanted my pupils to learn, trying to judge how much they had learnt to date, and what I needed to do to get them there, all the way. So what if that meant more testing, or more verbal quizzing? If it works, do it.

In teaching literature, I’d definitely make pupils learn gobbets of text. I can still remember “Oh for a muse of fire...” from Henry V, and “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” from Macbeth. And because I remember them I can see their relevance to the world I’m living in now.

In technical terms I’d be very demanding, making sure my students understood every nuance of every phrase. I would keep checking all of this stayed in their long-term memory. So I’d probably reserve
20 per cent of each week’s lesson time to go over what we learned before, making sure it was secure.

My dad said that when he was at school, every Friday was test day. Thursday nights would be spent cramming for tests. It meant that students didn’t have to put themselves through hell trying to figure out how to deal with mountains of material when it came to their exams: they would have already learnt it all and would only need to go over it for safe measure.

Students need to know plenty of quotations to support arguments in essays, so I’d make absolutely sure they knew them. If they didn’t, I’d be ruthless in following through, getting them back into school to do the extra work if need be.

Mainly I’d go all-out to have a wonderful time. Teaching is spectacularly rewarding. In how many jobs can you see so much progress? For early years and primary teachers, six months can be huge in terms of what happens in a child’s development. Even at A level, a lot can happen between September and May.

I would make sure I noted the impact of my teaching. I would write down what my students went on to achieve. I would try to predict what they’d end up doing, in terms of the job they had. And I would think to myself: I helped them become the people they are today.

Then maybe I’d give myself a pat on the back.

  • 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: www.johncattbookshop.com/mining-for-gold-stories-of-effective-teachers


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