Inspired by @headguruteacher’s weekend post on his 12 principles of teaching, I have had a go at his final question and written my own. In a strangely comforting way for an English teacher, they all begin with the same letter.
If I ever lead a school, I would like its tagline to be ‘a school for the incurably curious’. Living with a linguist, I am reliably informed that the phonological patterning of the phrase doesn’t work – but for me, there is something appealing about the never-ending spirit that is suggested by the phrase. By curious teaching, I don’t mean gimmicks or contrived activities which artificially engage students. Instead, I am referring to a deep-rooted sense that ‘thinking and not just being’ is both celebrated and encouraged within lessons. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t comfortable, but the moment we stop being curious is, I think, the moment we have lost the joy of teaching.
Great teaching develops character. Students ought to leave our care as polite, respectful and decent people who are confident and comfortable about who they are, and how they behave. Teaching needs to foster and develop this both in and out of the classroom. Sadly, for some of our students they do not have this modelled for them, and we have a duty to address this gap. Modelling these attributes and expecting all students in our classroom to demonstrate them is a must for me.
I don’t believe that schools should apologise for the role they have in ensuring that their students have the currency they need to succeed when they leave. It’s part of life. We all need qualifications and to argue otherwise seems naive to me. In my mind, there is not a dichotomy between currency and character. Schools should be able to deliver both. Teachers need to know their exam specifications and use this to drive and underpin their learning sequences. There is not for me, an issue with assessment language being prevalent in a classroom. It is a problem when teachers use the language of assessment to cap students’ expectations and therefore limit achievement. Teaching the test is very different to teaching to the test.
Being an expert in your subject is a must. This does not mean you know everything, but it does mean that you read, keep up to date and if you don’t know, you are interested enough to go and find out. Just as important is the ability in the classroom to make this content meaningful and relevant to students. This is not a green light for dumbing it down or glossing over difficult principles. There is nothing more enabling then giving students the tools and language to articulate their ideas and thinking. I have seen year 7 students flourish when given concepts such as metaphors and modality to help explain their thinking.
High challenge is crucial to good teaching and this can only be achieved by structuring learning from the top down. By starting planning with an understanding of what mastery would look like, and then scaffolding this to enable all to get there, creates a culture of high challenge for all. This does not mean teachers should alter the assessment criteria so that students are doing a different activity and being limited by the constraints of a must / should / could model. It does however, mean a recognition and understanding that some students might need more support and timing to achieve this.
Working hard is essential and I sometimes think teachers apologise for expecting and demanding this of their students in lessons. Teaching should give students the resilience and expectation that learning is not always easy, that they are in control of their future, and that no target grade is ever a guarantee or a limitation.
I am curious as I write this post how similar my list is to others. Is there something about the essence of teaching which is in the DNA of all great teachers?