Why teaching is hard

There is such a emphasis at the start of term to refine, review and improve what we do in the classroom. Whether it is because of the way that school appraisal systems work that traditionally- performance management will usually be conducted after the summer break- or whether it is the catharsis that comes with being at the start of a year with new classes, new staff, perhaps new policy- this is where we set about laying our intentions of what we would like to work on. The way in which we approach review can sometimes lead to a distortion in how we view how to improve, but also what implement may look like: in schools, there can sometimes be a danger that we look for simple solutions to issues and barriers that hold significant complexity.

Whilst intentions are ideal for ensuring a sense of focus, and I’m not disputing for a moment that we have a system without accountability, I would argue that the way in which we can approach the year ahead can at times hinder how healthy that accountability is- both on an individual level and as part of a more collective journey.

To set a bit of a caveat at this point, the definition of accountability has taken on a somewhat warped into a very context-specific, and in some cases, incredibly loaded meaning for teaching and it’s easy to see why. Accountability for a teacher means results. Accountability means measurement. However, in many other environments, workplace and otherwise, accountability simply means to hold yourself to the intentions you set for yourself. Now, if those intentions were to reach a data related outcome, then considering to what extent you reached the data outcome would make sense. Although, and this is perhaps a different conversation entirely for another time, holding myself to a data related outcome gives me very little idea as to how I reached that data outcome in the first place. For a novice, the data outcome means very little because they have very few experiences to draw upon. How do we expect a novice teacher to hold themselves to account to a data outcome, when they have yet to learn and experience not only the underpinning principles of teaching in action, but the plasticity required to adapt or identify which of these principles they should call upon in the real time of a classroom situation? Moreover, how do we invite an expert teacher to hold themselves to account to a data outcome, when they know how little impact they have over that outcome, which may then in turn distract them from what would be more useful to focus upon instead? A long caveat, but an important one. Accountability warps the way in which we identify why teaching is problematic.

To remove accountability for the moment- and to some extent, view the experience of an NQT as without accountability in the way that I defined, means we can instead think about why teaching itself is difficult, and why improving teaching can be problematic. I want to consider three hindrances within teaching and how without acknowledgment of these in our conversations with teachers, which then contributes to our school culture as a whole, it might feel as though any improvements we make are temporary.

Mistakes are inevitable

It is impossible for us to learn without encountering mistakes. As teachers, we work in real time, making snapshot decisions based upon the information that is presented to us from the students in that moment- consequently, this means we are making micro-choices through our instruction, explanation and demonstration. If I am teaching this extract, for instance:

The house knows me. Always smaller than it should be; the walls run closer and more complicated than the ones you remember. The place is always too small. Behind me, my mother opens the sitting room door.

‘Will you have something? A cup of tea?’

But I do not want to go into the sitting room. I am not a visitor. This is my house too. I was inside it, as it grew; as the dining room was knocked into the kitchen, as the kitchen swallowed the back garden. It is the place where my dreams still happen.

Whilst I may prepare questions for the use of figurative language; the personification of the kitchen as confining or claustrophobic; the shift from the restriction the narrator feels to the normalcy of the dialogue, delivering it to a class will require real- time choices: where to stop; where to gauge understanding; how to draw out who doesn’t know what; which element of the text to exemplify the personification to meet, and challenge the level of understanding in the room. I can script these with colleagues to provide me with a mental rehearsal of likely outcomes, but I can never truly know the final outcome, because as we all know, children are the biggest variable there is! In addition to this, once the lesson is complete, I do not know the outcome of the alternative choices: the ‘Sliding Doors’ of the lesson, if you will. I won’t really know if the choices I made were the most effective choices.

Of course, the longer the I teach, the easier this becomes- both through a sense of conviction in my real-time decision, but in not letting the alternative options linger too long in my reflections. However, moving away from novice in respect to the way these decisions are made is hugely reliant upon the conversations that take place. Building a bank of mental models so that teachers know not only how to make effective choices in real-time, but also understanding that the ‘wrong’ choice conversation is somewhat redundant, will enable post- teaching dialogue that looks to identify what does work, and build upon those strengths accordingly.

Starting smaller

Sometimes when we try to focus on improving classroom practice in schools, we lay out a set of underpinning principles based upon what we know will ensure we take a ‘best bets’ approach in the classroom. Schools that understand this process more effectively have moved away from non negotiables, with a deepened understanding that the good principles of teaching and learning may not always exist in every single lesson. Teachers may then try to focus on a broader approach to improvement, taking a wider perspective to what to work on to ensure that teaching improves as a result. This can then result in the broad, simple solution that I referred to before, because the stakes are high- rather than focus on one thing, with a narrow focus, teachers are encouraged to adopt several strategies at once with the same level of priority and results slt, intensity.

It is at this stage that we experience lethal mutation of the strategy: not because the teacher isn’t competent, but because they are required to give their attention to many aspects of their teaching, and fail to be in a position to give deep thought, reflection and dialogue to all of these things to then in turn, collate the mental models for what success of that strategy look like to master it entirely.

For instance, if I choose to work on accomplished teacher instruction, questioning- of all types, in all instances- and live modelling, but with only a finite amount of time to both trial these with classes and equally, a finite amount of time to reflect upon the way in which they are executed, what do I give my time? Where do I focus my energy to read around what mastery of these look like? When observing other teachers, which of these should I give my attention to? We can sometimes think that mastery or competency of teaching- anything, really- should be a rapid, hasty process and if it isn’t, it means that we’re simply no good at it. This could not be further from the mark. Identifying one aspect of teaching doesn’t mean that other aspects of practice are neglected or will deteriorate as a consequence; we have simply understood that to improve, we must focus on one thing at a time to do so. As Chris Moyse said this week, we must do something until it is impossible not to do it. Establishing a habitual approach to improving teaching is not reductive, but instead ensures a sense of longevity and sustainability to long term improvement.

The balance of autonomy

Teaching remains a profession that fails to give autonomy that the equivalent role of other professions take for granted. I would argue to some degree that this is necessary: we work within parameters where safeguarding and the legal responsibility of student care requires us to follow

The paradoxical thing about teaching is that no one can just tell you how to do it. That’s true of the way we learn most things, of course, but when drawing from my two previous points, the undertaking of both the pre-thinking of teaching and teaching itself have such complexity due to both the manner in which learning happens, but also the stakes that we as teachers place upon it. Dissecting this a little further: if I told you in advance of teaching a lesson that teaching required you to be considerate of how to utilise attention, explanation, assessing as a method of moving forward, modelling practice to exemplify what you expect from students, that doesn’t help hugely. It provides you with some information that might lead to you thinking about these elements in your own lesson, but until you know the mechanisms behind them, you’d be far too distracted with thinking about them to be able to consider making refinements to improve how they appear within your practice. We’ve avoided the narrowing of ‘just one thing.’ Equally, if I visited your lesson, then had a discussion afterwards with you about all the ways in which you didn’t consider these key aspects, it’s not going to help you to understand them further, or indeed encourage anything beyond perhaps compliance on your part. Who is to say that you should have thought about these? All of them? At once? And when you have yet to see these in action elsewhere. It become the what, without the how.

Autonomy is necessary not just for a sense of professional fulfilment, but as an individual teacher, a sense of ownership over what their definition of professional fulfilment looks like. If I choose to study the impact of attention upon learning, it’s because not only do I identify that it may be an element of my teaching that requires further work, but because it interests me to improve it. Just through identifying this aspect, I have started to shift not only my focus within teaching or teaching dialogue with my line manager when sharing reflections, but furthermore, I am starting the process of making adaptations of my belief system around what makes expert teaching: I’m objectively considering if attention is relevant, to what extent, how it may apply to what I do and how I might begin to seek out those that currently do this well.

The role of autonomy within teacher professional development functions not only as a contributor for individual ownership, but acts to serve as a whole- school model through threads of individual conversations that start to take place as a natural consequence of improvement. They’re not measurable- which is why no one likes them- but nevertheless, incrementally these utterances that occur as a result of reflecting upon moments, minutes of our teaching seek to move us on a continuum of how to serve the curriculum that we have laboured over. But, most importantly, they drive improvement for the individual in such a way that we can work in alignment to the acknowledgment that teaching is hard, instead of a fervent hunt for the next simple fix, then wondering why the impact didn’t last the course.

Thank you to Claire Hill, Mary Myatt, Neil Gilbride, Chris Moyse and Kathryn Morgan for making me think about this over the week few months. I’m very lucky to know such insightful people.

For more about the ‘how’ of the curriculum and classroom, you can pre-order Claire Hill and my new book Symbiosis here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Symbiosis-Curriculum-Classroom-Kat-Howard/dp/1913622088

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