Learning to teach can be a scary business. Parents will know the difficulties with one or two children, so the first time you face 30 or so, all of whom can sense your beginner’s nerves… well, you can imagine.
I vividly remember one of my teaching practices. I had been with one specific class for three months, and we had experienced a few rocky moments. I was learning the craft, and while some lessons worked, others did not. My lack of competence was sometimes as painfully clear to them as it was to me, but I worked hard, stuck at it, and gradually things settled. By the end of term, learning was reasonable and we had settled into a good routine. After my final lesson, the regular teacher debriefed the class when I was not there, to get straight feedback for me. The class (16 year olds) said something along the lines of “We really didn’t like him at the start, and we didn’t always understand what he was trying to say but he was trying so hard, and was so serious about helping us even when he was obviously really nervous, that we could really tell he cared”.
The teacher, close to retirement, coached me through a discussion about what had gone well, and I asked him what advice he had for me, on the basis of what he had seen. And it’s funny, because though I do not remember really thinking much of his advice at the time, I can still remember his precise words, where he was standing, and the look on his face as he said You know, Nick, look at what they are saying, and what it tell you – at its core, teaching is all about the relationship between you and the students. The younger me, full of tripartite lesson plans, assessment objectives and National Curriculum Class Mappings, worried about passing my teaching training had never really thought of this; I was so focused on mastering the technical ‘delivery’ parts of a lesson that I hadn’t ever really of the broader relationship piece. But what’s really interesting is that this class saw through my bumbling performance and could see that I did really care – and that my care manifested in great attention to detail, and a visible genuine commitment to their achievement.
The story came to mind when I was watching some lessons this week, and saw a teacher stand at the doorway, warmly greeting each student by name and in several cases banter with individuals about some out-of-class matter (drama rehearsals, the new spiderman movie, upcoming break). The students responded with smiles and warmth. In another class, the teacher entered after all the students were there, raised his arm in what was clearly an agreed class routine to get silence and started with three minutes of breathing exercises, explaining that this would bring calm and peace to anyone who was feeling any stress about anything. The class followed that teacher with trust and affection.
As I watched these master teachers, two things came to mind.
Firstly, I was reminded about how caring for students is something that emerges in no one single place, but from collective commitment in what researchers have called a constellation of encounters. What’s interesting here is that in all the examples, the care manifested in different ways, for different teachers, and would have been experienced by students in different ways; some would have loved the banter with a teacher, others would have cringed. Some would have been calmed by the breathing exercises, others bored. Some would have been touched by my diligence, others felt cramped.
And secondly, watching these teachers brings to mind the ever-present organisational dilemma about standardizing practices and allowing individual flexibility and agency. Of course, we want to be maximally effective but we certainly don’t want everyone squeezing their individuality out of lessons and teaching in the same way. As well as being desperate dull for students, pushing everyone to adopt the same practices in this area just won’t work – it comes back to the advice from all those years ago – you know, Nick, look at what they are saying, and what it tells you – at its core, teaching is all about the relationship between you and the students. So the most effective practices can often depend on the individual characters in the room, and the precise mix of experience, context and chemistry. That’s not to say there are no principles to draw on, but we need consistency of outcome, not consistency of practice. Children need to feel cared for, but that can, should (and frankly will) happen in many ways. That’s old wisdom that is as true for teachers as it is for parents. In my teaching practice, I got there more by accident than design but we are far more intentional about these things today.
With thanks to Adam Steele and Ellie Alchin for the conversations that lead to this blog