I am, fundamentally, a performer. I thrive when in the lime light and love to entertain my students but, if I’m really honest, I must admit that sometimes I run the risk of it all being about me and not about them. I have been a singer since my dad first took me busking (probably as soon as I could stand independently), and am now a semi-professional soprano. When I first started teaching, I thought this would go in my favour. I thought; I’m confident… surely that makes me a good teacher, right? Wrong.
As an NQT I was exhausting myself with whizzy lessons which relied on my personality and humour to carry them through. I could be every character in the play, the proposition and opposition, and always prided myself in sending them away buzzing and eager for more. In short, I thought being a performer was being a teacher. It wasn’t until a very wise deputy head observed my lesson and said, “where is their ownership of the lesson?” that I began to realise; they should be doing the work here, not me. We went on to have a number of fantastic discussions where I finally released hold of my lessons and decided to give them up to the students. It was difficult at first; I had to swallow my pride and tell myself, “this isn’t the Jenny show”. That old favourite; ‘leave your ego at the door’, had to apply to me even more than to my rowdy bunch of boys.
I am writing about this now because in the past week, I finally had an observation with aforesaid mentor, where I realised I had kicked the old habit. It has taken a while. After the lesson we both sat down and had nothing to say to each other; it was an incredible feeling. Without wanting to be gushy about it, this was a big deal for me, and I think it’s only right to share some of the things I’ve learned…
1. PLAN PLAN PLAN
If I don’t plan properly and make it clear where activities and discussions will be ‘student led’, I fall back on bad habits and just talk… and talk… and talk…
2. Silent Lessons
I regularly use silent lesson activities where all instructions are projected on the board and students just get on with it, using their common sense and team working skills to solve problems. This works really well as a whole lesson at the end of a project to test students’ understanding without teacher input, or as a shorter chunk of a lesson. My classes are used to how silent lessons work, so just get on with the task at hand. This gives me the chance to observe individuals and I sometimes stick ‘secret teacher advice’ on post-its if students are writing. The other thing I love about silent lessons is that, if we expect them to follow written instructions in examinations where, if they don’t understand they are on their own, this activity prepares them for independent thinking. My students aren’t scared of a voiceless, merciless exam paper!
3. Student Leaders
This will be common to a LOT of teachers, but it is worth saying again! Anything a teacher can explain to a class, a student can do just as well. If we need to recap the last chapter in the novel, I ask a student to get up, take the board marker and run that part of the lesson, taking ideas from the class and recording them. Of course, I am there to add anything they have forgotten, but it is very rare that they need me at all! I also sometimes ask a student to research something for homework so that they can be the class expert in the next lesson. This means that I don’t need to talk for 5 minutes about the position of women in Victorian England, and I might even get a Speaking and Listening mark out of it! This works particularly well if you choose the weaker students as “experts” as they have already learned about the topic in a way which suits them and so they are ahead of the game before the lesson even starts.
4. Student Lesson Plans
As a plenary activity I often ask the students to write a plan for the following lesson(s) based on their understanding of their targets and our current text or topic. For example, my Year 11 boys have been working on their Literature Controlled Assessment using a marginal gains wheel (look here) and have essentially been planning each subsequent lesson by deciding which of the skills on the wheel to work on next. I have planned activities based on where they want to go and which poems they still want to study.
Another, more structured way to use student lesson planning is to give them a simplified lesson plan and actually get them writing them in groups. We decide as a class which skills need to be covered, then they go an formulate their own Learning Objectives, and create a detailed lesson plan. I then look at them and condense all the best ideas into a plan for the next lesson or series of lessons. They thereby have real ownership of their learning, and, because it has come from them, they are the experts and I don’t need to talk; they just do!
5. THINK: GIVE UP THE POWER…
Finally, I have to constantly remind myself to relinquish power. This is their education, and they will grow more if I make them do more. If they are forced to find enjoyment in my lessons, for themselves, rather than allowed to sit back and be passively entertained, then they will be more fulfilled and challenged. My mantra is, ‘could a kid do this?’
They stick up their hand and say something brilliant. What do I do? I ask them to repeat it and explain it to their peers, I do NOT repeat it for them and go off on a tangential rant of my own.
They ask for clarification. What do I do? I ask another student to explain, I do NOT do it for them (if they didn’t get it when I explained it the first time, they will have much better luck with someone else!).
They share a personal anecdote. What do I do? I thank them for it and see if anyone else wants to elaborate or add their own, I do NOT add yet another story of my own, ultimately showing to them all how fascinating I am and slipping down the slope of egotism…
I hope this has been useful. It has made me feel more at peace with my inner diva who, while she is sometimes handy for waking them up during last lesson on a Friday, is nothing but a barrier to their learning the rest of the time.
P.S. having had some excellent feedback on the above, I feel it is important to add this…
Teacher talk is NOT the evil which I paint it here. It is in fact a vital part of our teaching arsenal and the place where our passion and personality is most exposed to students. To understand my feelings above, you must remember that my personal struggles with teacher talk have not been to eradicate it entirely, but to be less of an attention seeking loon, and more of a ‘proper teacher’!