7 Sep '13

News Secret Teacher: we need to practice what we teach

We teach pupils to be self-sufficient go-getters, but we're forced to toe the party line like over-qualified sheep, says Secret Teacher

I am sitting in our staffroom at the end of a long day, surrounded by semi-comatose colleagues, all of us desperately trying to keep our eyes open. I am pretty sure that at least one of us has failed: there's some decidedly ominous deep breathing coming from the coveted comfy chair in the corner. I briefly consider pulling out a fingernail in a valiant effort to stay awake, but settle for a swig of tepid tea to help me tune in to the drone of the assistant head leading this particular continuous professional development session. It's no good. I've lost it. I haven't got a clue what he's talking about.

It's during this moment – somewhere between irritation and boredom – that the irony of the situation hits me. This is a training session on how to give an outstanding lesson, led by an Ofsted-accredited outstanding teacher, but it's the worst example of teaching I've seen all term.

Like all new teachers, when I started I had a year of blissful, evangelical enthusiasm before the rot set in. For a long while I was perplexed: I knew that something felt wrong, but couldn't put my finger on it. In that interminable training session, however, it hit me like a board rubber to the back of the head: somewhere along the way, we've forgotten to practise what we preach.

Take the excellent philosophy of independent learning, for example. We quite rightly encourage students to be independent thinkers so that they emerge into the world of work as self-sufficient go-getters, ready to embrace their chosen career with zeal. As long as their chosen career is not teaching. For in teaching, autonomy is dead. The national curriculum, schemes of work, increasingly prescriptive specifications and so on all combine to ensure teachers don't have independence. Instead, we toe the party line like over-qualified sheep. We are automatons teaching our students to be autonomous.

And what about differentiation? In the classroom we are making great strides to adapt our teaching to the varied learning styles of our students. We pore over visual, auditory and kinaesthetic ways to enthuse and engage students for hours. It's now no longer enough for teachers just to be aware of any medical or special educational needs – we have to know how many brothers or sisters each student has, what their hobbies are, who they're going out with, their favourite ice cream flavour.

But as we strive to show how much we know about each of our students, we are slowly losing our own individuality. School policies are becoming increasingly prescriptive, dictating everything from how books are marked to how teachers write on whiteboards. Individual teaching styles and strengths are being repressed as the latest trends define how teachers perform in the classroom. As a profession, we are a homogenous mass, teaching classes of unique individuals.

When I started teaching, I was inspired by the concept of positive behaviour management. I'd experienced it in other industries, but in teaching it gave results I'd never seen before. Praise the good stuff rather than knocking the bad: it's such a simple principle and it works so well in the classroom. So why is it fine for teachers to be constantly told that this or that is not working or below standard?

We seldom, if ever, celebrate our own successes. Instead, we are beleaguered by initiatives and schemes all geared towards comparatives – let's do it better or quicker — rather than cementing the great work we do already. A few years ago, when assessing pupils' performance was the new "big thing", I remember questioning the validity of it with several colleagues. It seemed to be such a waste of time, just hoop-jumping for the sake of it. I was told that while the new method was onerous, it was a good way of helping struggling teachers to improve their marking. Great. So we're punishing the many for the sake of the few – you'd never get away with that in the classroom.

Since my lightbulb moment in that painful CPD session, I've started noticing it more and more. Teachers employ sound philosophies and strategies in the classroom, but fail to transfer these ideals into their own practice outside classroom teaching. It's not all our fault: we're a profession beset by schemes, initiatives, projects and plans, most of which are formulated by people who apparently have no experience or understanding of what it means to stand in front of a class of children. This relentless raft of rubbish is exhausting and time-consuming. But we must be careful – we must not be outstanding in the classroom but failing ourselves. We must practise what we teach.

This week's Secret Teacher is from a secondary school in the Midlands.

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