What children want….Great teaching!

"Sir" can still do it. One of my own recent projects, secret mitred dovetails and carved rosewood, all reclaimed timber.

My excuse for using an image of some of my own work rather than showcasing pupil work should become clear shortly.   After more years as a teacher than I care to admit to in public I discover that children can still surprise you.  There is no need for me to go into details here, suffice it to say that I came across something today which I have never encountered before and which I had to respond to by thinking on my feet.   If you are a teacher you will know that the ability to bluff comes high on your list of qualities.  Some years ago a parent who had been a pupil at the school years ago shared something with me.  A very senior and legendary member of staff had passed and exchanged greetings with them, the mother leaned over to me and told me that she had always been a good girl when she was at school but one day she and a friend decided to skip lessons and go into a nearby town instead.  As she put it, “Just our luck, we came out of a shop and there was Mr G!”  She continued, “All he said to us was, “Morning girls”, but we shot back to school and waited for the summons to his office.”  Leaning even closer she said, “Do you know, he kept us waiting for three days until we couldn’t stand it any longer, there was nothing for it but to go and see him.  We went up to his office and said how sorry we were.”  Apparently the teacher smiled and said, “I am glad that you have finally done the right thing in coming to see me girls,  I am sure it will never happen again, am I right?”  Of course both girls assured him that  they would never do anything like it again and indeed they never put a foot wrong during their time at the school.  I was deeply impressed by the wisdom of this man in finding such a positive way of dealing with the situation and I could hardly wait to tell him the story and assure him that he had had a wonderful effect on the two girls.  I am still not sure whether my admiration was enhanced or reduced when he assured me, “Of course, the truth is, I had forgotten all about them until they came to see me but it seemed too good an opportunity to go to waste.”  The positive power of a good bluff!

Perhaps on a more serious note the question occurs, what do children want from a lesson?  We know what we want, though sometimes I really believe we would benefit from having a sit down and rethinking what that is; we certainly know what the authorities want and perhaps what our headteacher wants.  Sometimes we get a glimpse of what society wants and what parents want but how about the children?  I have mentioned in other posts that in the UK we have been giving considerable weight to what we call student voice, in other words the opinions and perceptions of our pupils.  This had been going on for some years before a journalist got hold of the idea and banner headlines about children appointing teachers appeared.    It is true that children are often asked what they think about candidates for a job after teaching episodes, their feedback is usually awesome, perceptive and useful though I have never known it to be used as the deciding factor in an appointment.  It is also quite common for candidates to have to face questions from a small panel of pupils, you would be amazed at how clever some of the questions are and how disconcerting it can be, it is almost impossible to prepare for this part of an interview.

The journalistic take on this was that children would of course select the person who was the most attractive, the coolest, the one who promised little homework and so on.  The truth is that children do not want these things, they recognise quality teaching and like it, they want to be able to learn in an exciting and rewarding way and they are often merciless in analysing the strengths and weaknesses of teachers.  Following one such interview the discussion revealed that they liked and responded to one of the candidates on a personal level but the unanimously agreed that another had given them the opportunity to learn more.  When we speak with our pupils they say that they like to know where they are with teachers, they like the lesson to go well without interruptions caused by low level misbehavior, they like clarity of expression and they like to be made to think.

I picked up a piece of paper on a course, I wish I could attribute it so if it is yours please let me know.  It listed the qualities of an effective teacher.   One of the sub headings is, “Social Dynamics (the hardest one to pin down)”.  How true.  Of course children admire real accomplishment, (my excuse for the image of my own work), the like to know that the teacher is really good at their subject and really enthusiastic about it, not always the same thing.  The bullet points from my list are:

  • Hits the ground running at the start of the lesson
  • Changes direction to suit the group
  • Makes jokes but does more than entertain
  • Knows when to say “enough is enough”
  • Is respected and popular with students but doesn’t court popularity
There is a lot to say about each of these points, next post perhaps.  For the moment try thinking about your lessons today.  Now try thinking about a colleague’s lesson.  What I think we are talking about is a period of normal human interaction, responsive to all the members of the group, humorous when appropriate, purposeful and productive.  Wouldn’t it be great if all our staff meetings were like that?  Why shouldn’t lessons be like that?  And now the biggest question of them all, why aren’t they like that?
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