Monday, 22 February 2016

What Makes a Great English Teacher

 This was originally a question I answered on Quora that really got me thinking. We are inviting applications at the moment, and it's my first time recruiting. I'm genuinely excited about it, but it's made me think long and hard about who I want to work with. So, after much deliberation, here is my own guide to what makes a good English teacher.
I am in an interesting position at the moment which makes me quite relevant to answer this question; I am about to hire an English teacher to join me as the Second in Department at the school that I teach at. What this means is that I can tell you what I will be looking for in a few weeks time when I come to interview to hire.

First, though, a caveat borne of experience: I once went for an interview at a very good, very traditional school. I was well qualified for the post and when I was rejected for the role I was told that I simply didn't fit the school. I had thought that all the other candidates where quite boring, quite dull people who were overly entrenched in the past. The thing is that the school were absolutely right to reject me. I would've been a terrible fit. I would've fought against the school and they against me. So the caveat is that an outstanding English teacher in one school may well be awful in another, and vice versa.

To continue, then: In a few weeks I will sit across from some candidates and talk to them and what I will be looking for are people who:
Know their stuff: I want staff with great subject knowledge. I want our students to see that their teachers live their subjects.
Care about their subject: I want my students to receive up-to-date and exciting information. I want them to be able to get into deep discussions with teachers that truly care about what they're saying.
Are Interesting: Students deserve staff who lead interesting lives outside the classroom and can share elements of those lives. I want sportspeople, model-makers, musicians, chefs, readers, writers, readers, journalists, historians, film-buffs, artists, critics, nerds, geeks, gamers, because all this enriches the experience of teaching the most wonderful subject there is. Even if it doesn't seem important right now, it will be important at some point.
And then, I am likely to watch them teach a lesson and what I want to see is a lesson where the teacher:
Is Passionate: I want to see how much they care about what they're teaching. Students should be hung on every word because the teacher clearly wants to share their love and interest.
Has very high standards: Students deserve to be pushed and so I expect teachers to speak properly, press students' vocabularies, teach difficult texts and topics and correct students when they use unacceptable language or give simplistic answers.
Has a sense of humour and sense of perspective: You can also read this as 'Doesn't take themselves too seriously.' Schools should be lighthearted, fun places, and expect teachers to reflect this. They should also be able to recognise when a student has done something wrong by accident (as opposed to with malice), and how to deal with this is a way that is appropriate.
So that is my checklist for what I think makes a great teacher, but one last thing. I always want to work in an environment where teachers and students are pushing themselves forward. I think the best trait a teacher can have is to always be learning and questioning. I want to work with people that are unafraid of failure, and embrace criticism and move forward constantly. And if you've got to the end of this, and you live in London and are a teacher and are thinking 'This sounds like me!' then why not apply: Space Studio West London

Saturday, 23 January 2016

You work until when?

Hello everyone.

This is hard for me to say.

I am a teacher.

And I work until Five.

Shock, Gasp, Horror.

Oh. Wait. You ONLY work until five?

Yes. I only work until five. in fact, I stay at school until five, and then, give or take, I go home. What makes this particular situation slightly more unusual is that I teach until five. Every day, except for Fridays (where we pack up at 3:40) I get into school about and have a working day all the way through until five, at which point, almost simultaneously, the entire staff of the school legs it. And when I get home, what do I do? The same things that the rest of my school's staff do:

Spend time with their family.
Go to the gym.
Watch a bit of sport.
Play with the dog.
Watch the collected works of Wes Anderson.

You get the picture, and the picture doesn't include any work whatsoever. My school specifically has a 'don't take work home' policy. HA! I hear you cry from the future, but what if you HAVE to get that marking done. Well, if it isn't done in PPA time then the marking isn't efficient enough. And what about planning then? If it isn't done in PPA time then it's overplanning, not planning at all.

I know that this is beginning to come across as a sort of vague utopian satire, that in a second I will wake up from my little long-houred school but, actually, there is no volta here, no reveal. This is a piece of writing in defence of a few small things, and promoting a few small things. I live in an idyll, as far as education is concerned. A state-funded, non-selective idyll; A studio school.

By Tuesday, every week, I have taught every student in the school. All 80-odd of them will have passed into my judgement and out again. Now, yes, we are in our first year of opening, and so we are at half capacity, but the entire size of the secondary school will never exceed 300 for years 10-13. I know every child in our school's name, and they know mine. And I talk to them, every day. I spend time with students.

In our timetable, SLT have been really careful to place enough time for staff to do all their work on site. Right now, I am in the 2-hour PPA period that I have first thing in the morning 4 days a week. I get a lot of stuff done in these periods, not least all my marking, planning, and then have a wander around the school, watching other teachers teach. Often, I just sit in the back of other teacher's classrooms and do my marking, or I just watch their lessons and learn something. I am not a mathematician, but I am getting better, purely by the amount of maths lessons I now watch. Because, once again, I have time.

There is, of course, a flipside that some are already guessing. If you keep the kids until 5, when do they do their homework? Here. They do it here. They have timetabled independent study periods where they have to do their work. They get it done on site, in periods supervised by teachers, which means that students can ask their teachers for help. Then, at the end of the day, the students get to go home, and not do homework, and not panic about not understanding their homework. Parents don't have to panic about not being able to help their students. Then, inadvertently, arguably, and even more adverbially, the best result is that students' books are kept at school, in big boxes. All of them. It is next to impossible for a child to lose their book, or 'leave an essay at home' because the book should never have been there in the first place. We have so much control here, and that enables us to do amazing things like taking kids on trips, and getting in outside speakers every single week.

What we are learning is that above everything else,  If teachers have time, have space, fell valued, feel supported and are therefore happy, then amazing things happen. Most importantly, the experience for the students is unique and incredible.

We Need to Talk about Thursday

We need to talk about Thursday. Why do we need to talk about Thursday? Because I'm pretty sure that it was the best teaching day of my life.

I haven't been writing much recently. Well, not here anyway. I have actually been working on a novel. It has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with it at the same time, but that is an aside that hasn't quite linked up yet, so we will leave it, comparatively, untouched.

The writing has dried up somewhat because I am a little bit too happy. It is easier to complain in a wild, emotional abandon than to exalt with any sort of integrity. I have learned that it is difficult to write good news, which explains the Daily Mail, I guess.

So, Thursday, I'm sorry. Thursday was the best day of my teaching life, and part of that was because it wasn't atypical of my current working life. I cycled in and arrived about 8, and I cycled home when I finished teaching just after 5. But, then what else?

I started the working day with breakfast, bought from home, sat around in the canteen with the other teaching staff while the students sorted themselves and their gossips out for the day. Then I had English timetabled with year 10.

I teach both halves of year Ten, or, looking at it another way, all of year Ten. We have about 48 students in year ten, and a shade under thirty kids in year twelve and that's our entire school. We're a studio school and we only opened in September. Next year we'll have years 10-13, giving up a shade under 200 students for the entire school. For now, we are minute, and not in that disappointing steak kind of way.

This diminutive structure has a vast number of advantages, but that's not the direct reason why Thursday was incredible. I taught a lesson. I taught the same lesson twice in fact. It was a lesson I'd been thinking of for a while. The first half of it was relatively mundane; the students wrote letters to each other, as if we were fifteen years in the future and they were getting in touch with their former classmates. They've been doing this quite a bit. They get a letter, anonymously, from someone else, read it and send a reply. The next week they get the replies and send another. it's working as an ongoing project. They enjoy it. Each of them, in 45 minutes, writes and observant letter. It's a nice thing. After that, the students studied two different manifestos and then wrote their own revolutionary manifestos. Some of them needed a bit of quiet space so used some of the other rooms in the school. I put some Billy Bragg on as well, just to set the mood.

After four hours of English teaching I hopped on the school bus with 12 Year 10s and drove about fifteen minutes down the road to go Ice Skating for the third time in two weeks. (third time, a third of year ten, sort of fits, right?). It became ice clear as soon as blades touched clear ice that many of these students were new to the slippery stuff. I love seeing students out of their comfort zones, and out of the school environment, so it's good that our school has developed an informal motto: Every week, someone goes somewhere. We're actually far exceeding this: Last week something like 8 trips went out and we had 3 outside speakers. We work hard to provide unique experiences, and in return our students are good as platinum.

I got back to school at 3:40, just in time for the last lesson of the day, which in my case was the current Core Project: Flight. Every group is pursuing the project from their own unique angle. Their only outcome is they must build a model and produce a display board explaining a concept of flight. One group decided they wanted to work with clay, so we got them some clay and I spent a good half hour modelling with them. I built an eagle's head of my own and they started on their own project. I had to leave them, though, to teach a masterclass. We offer these every Core Project session. They're optional little mini classes on these that the teacher is interested in or wants to research. This one was on advances in aircraft technology from WW2 to the current day. It's an area I really like talking about.

And that's it, actually. I don't know whether you've noticed the running theme. I love letter writing, I love manifestos, especially modernist ones, love Ice Skating, love craft and modelling, love planes and most of all I love teaching about things I love. There is no force in teaching more powerful than passion. I am not an exceptional teacher; I am a teacher who took a chance on a school that didn't exist when I applied to it, and I have used that chance, as have the rest of the staff I work with, to foster an environment where we enjoy every single day. We regularly say to each other that 'this doesn't feel like work'  because it doesn't. We don't have hideous numbers of emails; we talk to each other. We don't have reams of pointless paperwork; we get on with stuff, and to all the naysayers about accountability and OFSTED? Our vice principal is an inspector.

So we need to talk about Thursday, because Thursday felt like a school should; exciting, stretching, passionate and fun. It's just a little sad that it also feels like no other school I have ever been in.