guest post #43 – neil waite – @NeilWaite1

Let’s Teach Again

This is my 25th year of teaching and like the previous contributors I love this job. I’d say it’s the best job in the world but only over the last few years have I wondered why – as the more time I spend on paperwork and new initiatives, the less time I spend with the children.

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For what is it that gets me out of bed in the morning? As for many, it’s being with the kids and witnessing their ‘penny drop’ moments, and contributing to that. I remember a leaving speech by a colleague about 10 years ago. He was an inspirational teacher but was giving up teaching. Looking forlorn he said, ‘It is with great regret that I’m leaving but unfortunately my teaching is now getting in the way of the job.’ This has stayed with me and I’m determined not to let it happen to me.

Teaching wasn’t my first career although I always wanted to be a teacher when at school. I wanted to teach Design & Technology, a subject which inspired creativity and problem-solving. But due to poor careers advice I ended up working as a Production Engineer. I was never happy in this and finally decided to go back to college and get a teaching degree – the best thing I ever did.

So 25 years on I look back on my early years of teaching as a utopia. Yes, I wrote reports, attended parents’ evenings and marked work, but mostly I was planning and teaching. Although we didn’t forensically analyse results through progress measures, my threshold GCSE results were consistently good.

So what’s happened since then? Well, 25 years of government change with initiatives too many to mention. I’ve kept up with it all though. Government papers, curriculum changes, exam board merges, national strategies, resource packs, ped packs, back packs, you-name-it packs … and guess what? My results are still good, no better or worse. Now what does this tell me?

Somebody asked me the other day: ‘If you could go back and teach in a particular time, when would it be?’ I didn’t have to think hard: it’d be 1995-2000. Those of you who are old enough will recall a five-year moratorium, recommended by Sir Ron Dearing with his curriculum revisions, endorsed by the Conservative government. In other words we were left alone for five years. And what a great five years it was. We could keep both eyes on the ball without having to have one eye on the goal post.

I’ve been part of so many new initiatives. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking them though there does come a point where you suddenly realise you’ve seen it before albeit with a different title.  And this isn’t just a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid change.  I’ve always been excited by and embraced change.

We’ve had much excellent research to keep up with – Wiliam, Hughes, Oates, Ginnis, Hattie et al. And it’s brilliant stuff if you try it out… from the distant past with the introduction of ‘traffic-light feedback’ and ‘no hands up’ through to ‘marketplace’, ‘blooms’, ‘solo’ and many more. So as a younger teacher I would feverishly adopt every new notion. But experience has taught me to step back and ask, ‘Will this really make a difference?’, and with our continual striving for a healthy work/life balance, ‘What’s the ratio of input to output? Of course all these initiatives are important at the time but we know some will stay and some won’t. Anyone who has tried to access the ‘Every Child Matters’ website over the last couple of years will have seen the message ‘Website no longer in existence.’ More recently it has been replaced by a statement in the past tense about why the initiative was important. So does every child no longer matter…?

Dave Brailsford, the British cycling coach, talks of ‘marginal gains’. And marginal gains do accumulate. But the gains Mr Brailsford speaks of have small input – washing hands properly, using your own pillow, using round wheels (haha). Our educational marginal gains, however, can take hours of planning.  But do keep up with subject initiatives. Keep up with government initiatives. Keep up with educationalist initiatives, but discriminate. You need time to plan your lessons – make the time. You need time with your family – make time for that.

So finally, let’s just park Hattie et al aside for a moment, what really makes the difference? Well… being happy in your own teaching for a start. Standing by the door at the start of a lesson and greeting every child with a hello and a smile (yes, every child –  even that one!), circulating and talking to them, asking about their weekend, stopping what you’re doing if a pupil wants to speak to you, saying goodbye, asking them what they have next, making the effort to watch them play football or netball after school, saying hello in the corridor… Well, you know what I mean. You won’t find any school or government measure for these things but they trump every single initiative from the biggest educational brains.

We are in such a privileged position and the time is going to fly by. Embrace what you do well, don’t lose sight of what matters and take pleasure in it.

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