I’m on a train. Time to think. Sorry in advance …
We make hundreds, if not thousands of decisions every day as a teacher. Some of them are conscious decisions and some less so. One of the things I know is that I spend lots of time thinking about where to start to pitch the level of the work that students need to access. I often wonder that if students had the required prior knowledge for a topic they would find any topic (relatively) easy. Don’t worry I haven’t lost the plot because I know it takes more than prior knowledge to learn something new … I know there are conditions that should be in place that are favourable to learning – internal and external. Some we can control and some we can’t control. I also know that for some students, in some contexts if we waited until students were ready to learn a tougher topic it just wouldn’t happen. I’m a realist.
Thinking about what other skills are required for a specific topic and reminding students about them (for example the ability to do GCSE estimation exam questions usually requires the ability to multiply or divide decimals so I’d try to make sure that skill was practiced beforehand) is a really important part of my planning.
I’m also slowly coming to the conclusion that for some students when faced with something they don’t understand (actually … is it because they haven’t “thought” about it and are just superficially reading a question and drawing the conclusion that it’s too hard?? And if I hear “but it’s long!” when faced with a wordier question, one more time, I swear I will scream … when did this instant gratification start?) … argghhh I’ve gone off on a tangent! … where was I? oh yes … some students when faced with something they don’t understand (giving them the benefit of the doubt that they HAVE thought about and haven’t got a clue) they go off task and poor behaviour seeps in. On the reverse side of this there are students that just lap up any work that is given to them and I’ve also been working with some of the brightest year 9 students I’ve taught in a long time recently doing some enrichment work and their enthusiasm is fantastic and has served as a reminder as to why I love teaching. It’s been a respite from the “usual suspects” that I teach … Don’t get me wrong I love what I do but there are times when it’s hard not to take things personally. You can’t just switch off your feelings at the school gate.
I’ve spoken to lots of students about poor behaviour over the years (as most of us have!) and the other thing that I’m hearing more of is an instant response of “I’m stuck” … as if that’s an excuse or reason. I have no issues with reasons for not doing something but am not so tolerant of excuses and THERE IS A DIFFERENCE! Being “stuck” is not a reason for poor behaviour. The same stands when students are caught talking when they needn’t be and you get told “so-and-so is/was talking too” … yep that’s an excuse too! Not a reason! I was once told that “reasons are needed to do a particular thing, but excuses are reasons to not do it” oh bugger!! I’ve done it again. However, this is a valid point because sometimes this response is a “learned response” and is a cop out. I don’t want this to sound as if I am dismissing genuine “stuckness” … I am most definitely not doing that.
So … Back to what I’ve originally been thinking about. A few weeks ago I had an epiphany. I had a lesson with particularly tricky behaviour and the next lesson I chose to do something really accessible (Read that as EASY, in fact read that as something they could ALREADY DO with some prompting!) and the behaviour was impeccable. Which got me thinking whether I had incorrectly pitched the work in the previous lesson. I don’t think I had, yes it was challenging for this group and not because it was a tough topic but because the topic required some thinking about. It wasn’t (like most areas of maths) something that you can do whilst multi-tasking. The point is I can choose to give them something they can already do and not come away wanting to leave the profession or I can do the right thing and teach them something new in a lesson. I will choose the latter every single day – the issue with that is sometimes there’s a kickback in terms of behaviour. AND … in a school where the normal diet for those trickier students is lots of lessons (and I am not saying that’s the case with my students … just to make that clear) where they are just doing stuff that they can already do, when they are faced with a lesson/teacher that expects them to actually “do stuff” that kickback comes at the teacher doubly hard. So, what do we do?
Do we lower our standards in terms of what work we want them to do? Definitely not! We are doing the students a disservice if we do that.
Do we lower our standards in terms of what behaviour is acceptable in our classrooms? Definitely not! Again, we are doing them a disservice – part of our job is to show students the acceptable norms in society to prepare them for life.
What we actually do is take a breath, regroup, reflect, replan and go again. Yes, it feels like Groundhog Day at times but like the film we keep on trying with a view to having the fairy-tale ending. I’m not sure that we ever get the fairy-tale in teaching if I’m honest and whilst I am sat on this train, surrounded by people all looking down at their phones whilst a 2-year-old is singing “I’m a little teapot” on the seats behind me (and has been for 40 minutes) which is delightful (honest!) I am reminded of the part of the film where Rita says “This day was perfect. You couldn’t have planned a day like this.” Phil’s reply is “Well, you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.”
Oh feckity feck. Teaching is hard sometimes.