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Outstanding Teachers

A tip for aspiring snake-oil salesmen: to help peddle your wares in the state school sector, always start any pitch with the words ‘Ofsted are looking for…’

It’s a winner. After all, which school would dare object to anything that might improve their standing with the Masters of the Universe? Whether the idea has merit or not is irrelevant – whether the school thinks that Ofsted thinks the idea has merit is the ballgame. Be assured, if schools thought that Ofsted wanted to see kinaesthetic starters where we dress ourselves in Velcro suits and fling ourselves against a felt wall, then we’ll damn well do it, and even find time for a mini-plenary afterward.

Of course, this is all very odd. But it is also the way things are. Schools, fearful of their reputation (and the numbers on roll), will do whatever it takes to please those who have the privilege and responsibility of pronouncing on the quality of our establishment.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Well, nobody really. Which is rather the problem. It lets schools turn lessons into game shows to impress an Ofsted inspector sat at the back of a classroom for twenty minutes, and it lets Ofsted inspectors think game shows and myriad other feel-good learning environments are signs of a healthy, vibrant, educational establishment.

Which is where the snake-oil salesman is rubbing his hands together with glee, making money from both sides of the divide. The disconnect between what a school thinks Ofsted want to see, and what Ofsted actually want to see, is not usually all that far apart. What should be an agency to minimise dreadful practice is also, with a quick change of clothes, an agency to enforce uniformity within schools on issues such as pedagogy and the like.

Which is fine when the ideas are sensible. Not so much when they’re not.

It is a problem the whole teaching establishment grapples with. Or at least, they would grapple with it if they would even acknowledge it as a problem. For example, I remember once being in a lecture, during my teacher training, when the gentleman giving the lecture excoriated his old Geography teacher from his school days, launching into him on everything from pedagogy to philosophy. We were left in no doubt that the kind of teaching that this teacher displayed was bad (‘we had to copy things from the board!’), and if any of us had sympathy with any of the things there mentioned then clearly we were bad teachers too. Fortunately, at the end of the lecture, I managed to ask this lecturer what grade he finally received in Geography. He told me he received an A, but that wasn’t really the point he was making.

Well, quite.

Which left me thinking: why do so many lecturers trash the systems and methods that built them into the well-educated and successful professionals they are today? Or more to the point, why do they deny the systems and methods that built them into well-educated and successful professionals to the youth of today? Until we have an answer to that, and whilst it is these people who set the rules of the game, little is likely to change.

 Back when ah wurra lad…

Whenever any teacher embarks on their training career, or when they go on some training course which requires one to reflect on what a good teacher looks like, they are nearly always asked to picture their favourite teacher from when they were at school. You know, the one who inspired them to run a marathon, or cure cancer, or become a teacher or whatever. And from amidst the smiling-stares and nostalgic sighs comes a vague list of the things that were special about this teacher, about what they did and how they did it.

But it is far from an easy task. After all, for many of us these inspirational teachers would now be considered ineffective. Looking at what we are told makes an outstanding teacher, very few of my best teachers (yes, I would use the word outstanding) would doubtless be graded as satisfactory today, maybe worse, despite the fact that I and many others flourished under their tutelage.

None of my teachers ever set learning objectives, you see, nor shared learning outcomes. They didn’t play music in lessons, and except in practical lessons we were never allowed time to be out of our seats. We used textbooks and we answered questions from the board, and the teacher stood at the front of the class and gave us knowledge that he or she expected us to both make notes on and learn. We were tested and given grades, not levels. We never went on Learning Walks (though we did go on school trips). There were no games used in lesson, except for at the end of term-time, and we were not given regular opportunities for discussion, collaboration and feedback. They sometimes shouted and were not averse to making an example of a student.  They did not explain to us how lessons would be structured and there was certainly no constant linking to some vague and essentially meaningless AfL or NC criteria. There was no WILF, there was no WALT, there was no SEAL and there was no PLTS.

They simply taught, and we simply learned.

Quite frankly, give them a list of criteria of what constitutes outstanding practice and they would only be able to conclude that they’re simply not up to the job.

Hark, some will cry, if they were that good then they would have embraced change and adapted; they would have liberated their classrooms from the tyranny of straight row teaching and formed a u-shaped parliament; they would have banished chalk and talk and planned for kinaesthetic learning time; they would have expelled those crusty old textbooks and brought in ICT with animation-rich PowerPoint. These excellent teachers you remember would have been at the cutting edge of keyword carousels, and quadblogging, and the assessment archipelago, and myriad other oh-doesn’t-it-feel-good-to-be-innovative teaching methods of dubious educational value.

And yet, no. Just no. I’m almost certain that, for those teachers that remain an inspiration to me, should they still be in the profession at all then they would be classed as the cynical long in the tooth old-guard refusing to embrace the new ways of doing things. And for precisely that reason ignored by those and amongst those who really ought to be listening to them most attentively.

Alas, next time I’m asked at some conference or training event about my ideal teacher by some professional educator who has never been in a school, either at all or in a very long time, then I might just feel the urge to eulogise my favourite teachers before saying with a sigh: ‘yes, they really were excellent. And it is in their honour that I feel obliged to tell you to shove this dross up your a**e.’

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