Why you should be a ‘maverick’ teacher

Written by: Phil Beadle | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Award-winning teacher Phil Beadle argues why and how, as teachers, we should all embrace the maverick – by jettisoning what isn’t important and focusing on our students

It’s a funny old word “maverick”. And any article with it in the heading is bound to bring to mind images of some self-regarding David Brent-style chancer who expresses his disdain towards the authority that feeds him through the agency of an overly colourful tie and the Mickey Mouse socks he’ll surreptitiously reveal to those taken temporarily in by his gossamer charm.

There is also the sense that any idiot seeking to address this word (and to examine what it means) “clearly” identifies with it and is therefore to be viewed through the twin lenses of pity and contempt.

So, I’m acutely not unaware that publishing a book examining the concept might automatically make any reader’s forehead screw up into the worried frown that says something along the lines of: “I used to partially respect this fella’s work and now he is just about to make a monumental fool of himself.”

The book, Rules for Mavericks, came about from having encountered this word spat in the direction of my lugs many times over many years.

When I’ve summarily failed to do the expected thing in a school environment, mainly because the expected thing was palpably stupid, this word had been chucked across the school corridors in the presence of students: a tone of contemptuous satire attached.

“You’re such a bloody maverick!”

When I’ve refused to use resources provided for me that were of negligible (meaning zero) educational benefit; when I’ve not bothered to do a PowerPoint (and when I’ve pointed out that decent lessons existed before the invent of this time-stealer, or that teaching, at its best, might be considered an entirely dialogic activity); increasingly, when I’ve spent hours ensuring that all my kids’ books are marked, this word has been the unconsciously unctuous knee-jerk reaction of the profoundly mediocre person whose ego is supplemented and controlled by their possession of an exalted job title. (“I demand to be taken seriously, I am ‘Director’ of something. Or other.”)

I’ve also found myself in meetings with nice people who wanted to pay me money for doing something for them, in which they’ve told me with neither artifice nor veiling smoke that: “Basically, despite you being the most qualified person for this work, I’m struggling to get your name put forward as everyone sees you as being little more than a complete bloody maverick.” So I am going to spend this article listing the things that have got me into trouble over the last few years (as, unless I’m working for an old mate who just remembers me as a decent enough English teacher who gets up very early, I am always in trouble for something or other nowadays).

This is not to suggest that there is any taxonomy of “maverick teaching”, nor indeed that you should take this article as anything more serious than a diversion, but there are rationalised reasons behind my own version of not doing what I’m told, and I think it reasonable that younger teachers understand there is a path away from dribble and waste and that others have walked it before.

The students

First, “maverick teaching” has one sole focus: student achievement. Nothing else. Everything else is a distraction and quite a bit of a waste of time. If it doesn’t move students forward, pay lip-service to it if the societal pressures in the environment are such that you must, but do so as you are surreptitiously chucking it in the bin.

This is not to say that you don’t take students’ reports deathly seriously, that you don’t do your best to fill in the endless spreadsheets that require this boring thing they call data (which is deemed important, but I’d always thought was just how they’d done with another teacher and wasn’t necessarily relevant this year), or that you are not a helpful colleague.

But really we are there for limited reasons and these are predominantly to impart knowledge, facilitate practice and provide opportunities for intellectual and creative growth for our students.

If the task set for you to do is not good for them, then it’s not good for you either and you’d be best off not paying it too much respect nor wasting your weekends ensuring you are on top of things that are pointless.

PowerPoint

Second, and on a related tip, spurn PowerPoint as you would a rabid dog that is dry humping your shinbone. There are, so I’ve heard, certain chain-like institutions that greet new teachers with: Here’s your classes; here’s your PowerPoints; get on with it (oh, and by the way, you will be doing 16-hour days every day, we own your family and if you go public with the fact you’re being abused, you’ll never work in this town again: it’s in the contract)!

I am old enough to have started teaching in the final days of chalk and taught some okay lessons with the white stuff. I am also old enough to remember my whiteboard being taken away and replaced with a very expensive piece of expensive kit I couldn’t work.

The result of this dunderheaded and very expensive attempt at modernity was/is that many/most teachers use the dumb-board to show PowerPoints in every lesson.

Now, let’s do a time and motion study on the construction of a PowerPoint. It takes me (and admittedly I’m slow because I resent doing them) a whole Saturday morning to do a PowerPoint for one lesson. In the same amount of time, I could have marked three class sets of books, set gradational targets for improvement and learned what these classes needed to know next. On balance, I therefore conclude that PowerPoint sits in the category of TOTAL. AND UTTER. COMPLETE. WASTE OF BLOODY TIME.

On entering a dialogue about what constituted decent planning with a colleague relatively recently, I was glibly informed that it was in the contract (that I was never offered and wouldn’t have signed in any case) that I would produce a PowerPoint for each lesson.

And here we reach the point where maverick approaches are, in fact, the only sane position: where institutional self-regard becomes so puffed up that all ideas about what is achievable, and what we might think it reasonable to expect of humans tip into the surreal, then rejection of the orthodox view becomes the only sane response.

Lesson objectives

Equally, lesson objectives. It is not unreasonable to define what the kids are going to leave your lesson with that they didn’t have before it. But – really – it’s probably pointless starting all lessons with the same tired: “Let’s plaster on a fake grin and trawl through the sharing of objectives one more time. I’ve got a script and it starts like this!”

The kids don’t give a toss about objectives; you don’t give a toss about them; the only people that care are management and they are occasionally barely analytical about whether things are of real worth.

Often, they will just want to see that you are conforming sufficiently to be constructing a lesson in a manner that implies organisation. The sharing of objectives is a proxy for organisation and really, at this stage of your career, you should be beyond needing that.

The same applies for starter activities, plenaries (and, yes, I know I wrote a book (for money) about them), and any overly ornate version of Assessment for Learning that passes over teacher expertise in favour of student ignorance. They are ALL rubbish and lead us towards the madness of festishising the pointless so that it takes precedence over the necessary and the vital.

Keeping it simple

As I have got older, my teaching has become simpler and, for me, maverick teaching, or indeed any form of valuable teaching is just that – simple. Previously, over half a decade ago, I might have been one of the principle voices arguing for teachers to be allowed to make lesson structure as ornate as suits them (and I’d still fight to protect that right for others), but personally my lessons tend towards utter simplicity these days.

They follow a similar format: teach them something they don’t know (this will generally involve standing at the front with either book or board marker); give them access to reams of new language that will enrich their vocabulary and their ability to understand the world; get them to do some writing; mark the writing; repeat the cycle.

That, for me, nowadays, is “maverick” teaching. There may well be others who regard it as something else, but, like me, it is unlikely that they will ever get to be director of anything and will end up as nothing more than the kind of teacher whose lessons are valued by their students. And ultimately, career ambition and interest in power aside, there is nothing else that anyone sane would want to be.


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