“An instructor should exemplify the things he seeks to teach. It will be of great advantage if you yourself can do all you ask of your students and more.” – Bruce Lee
You better be ready.
You are going to stand in front of a class of 30 children. You might teach 5 classes a day. That’s 150 learning hours a day. 600 learning hours a week. 2,400 learning hours a month. Your influence is absolutely vast. All of those impressionable eyes, ears and brains are trained on what you have to say. You will help to shape hundreds, maybe thousands of minds. You have been trusted with one of society’s most precious and fragile assets – our children. They get only one shot at education. The stakes are high.
It is not ok for you to not be good enough at this. If you are a bad teacher, and you know you are a bad teacher, and you aren’t doing all you can to improve, then you are wilfully doing serious harm to the life chances of hundreds of children. If you can’t or won’t do this properly, you should get out of the profession as soon as possible. Perhaps this sounds unfair. It’s not. Your personal circumstances may be hugely challenging. You may find the demands of the job too difficult. You have my sympathy, but that doesn’t outweigh your responsibility. There can be no excuse for messing up the only chance that young people get. It’s their future. Are you sure you are up to it?
The first thing you need to be utterly confident about is your own subject knowledge. Teaching is the transfer of subject knowledge from the expert mind of the teacher into the novice minds of the learners. Clearly, excellent subject knowledge is a prerequisite. Sub-par, vague or inaccurate subject knowledge cannot be tolerated in schools. Teachers have a responsibility to be experts in the topics that they teach. This doesn’t mean that we expect teachers to know everything at the start of their career. In fact, the opposite is true. Teachers need to accept that the subject knowledge they developed at degree level does not align exactly with the subject knowledge needed to deliver the school curriculum. Teachers need to have the humility to keep learning.
Perhaps the worst crime of knowledge a teacher can commit is teaching the students something that is patently wrong. There is a disturbingly widespread example of this in the English teaching community and I need to get it off my chest.
Pathetic fallacy. It sounds fancy, doesn’t it? It’s clearly sophisticated tier 3 vocabulary, so it’s oh so tempting to teach it to our students. Well, that’s fine, but what does it mean? Almost every English teacher I have met has taught their students that pathetic fallacy is a writer’s technique in which the writer uses the weather to symbolise or represent the character’s mood. And every single bloody one of them is wrong. Don’t take my word for it. Ask an English teacher… and then go ahead and Google it. You’ll find that it was a term coined by the critic John Ruskin, and that it describes the attribution of human emotions to non-human aspects of nature.
This extract from The Victorian Web should clear things up, for any English teachers still clinging to the wrong definition:
as instance he [Ruskin] presents these lines from Kingsley‘s Alton Locke:
“They rowed her in across the rolling foam —
The cruel, crawling foam.”
According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker’s mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for “so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley’s above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow. (George.P.Landow)
Pathetic fallacy is not as simple as “the weather represents the mood of the characters.” That’s just wrong. When the weather represents the mood of the characters, that’s just garden variety symbolism. The AQA exam board pointed out this common misconception in an examiners report for A level English literature. I’ve told every English teacher I have worked with about this common misconception, and yet it prevails. It makes me think of this fantastically cutting quotation:
“It is so easy to be wrong-and to persist in being wrong-when the costs of being wrong are paid by others.” (Thomas Sowell)
Pathetic fallacy is my own bugbear. I don’t understand why educators would resist being disabused of this misguided notion. Perhaps we just don’t like to find out we are wrong about something. The bigger issue, though, is that we must not be complacent about the accuracy, quality and detail of the subject knowledge that we pass on to the children we teach.
The knowledge and skills that you will teach to the students in your subject area must be carefully planned, delineated, quality assured and reviewed. At GCSE and A level, this selection process has largely been completed for us by the exam boards. They have decided on the skills and knowledge students will need to demonstrate in the exams or coursework. We still make a lot of decisions about the content we teach, and the order in which we teach it, but a great deal is predetermined by the exam board. At KS3, the picture can be very different.
In the context of your school, you must work with your colleagues in your department to decide upon the best curriculum for your learners. Considering the children who attend your school, their social, cultural and economic backgrounds, the progress (or lack thereof) made at the primary schools in the area, and the challenge of being KS4 ready, you must collaboratively plan and deliver the best suited curriculum of knowledge and skills. The autonomy that we teachers are afforded in designing the KS3 curriculum is a huge act of trust. We are trusted to be experts and trusted to make the best judgements we can about what to teach to the young people in front of us. This is an enormous selection process. The entire intellectual content of your subject domain goes beyond what you learnt during your 3 (or more) years at university. That corpus of knowledge certainly goes beyond the KS4 exam specification, too. From this seemingly limitless pool of subject knowledge, you and your departmental colleagues must choose the best knowledge. The most powerful things for students to learn about geography, history, psychology, information technology and so on.
Which knowledge should you give to these students now, during this one and only precious opportunity to do so? Every choice creates an opportunity cost. For everything you decide to teach, you are choosing not to teach something else. Should year 7 look at the art work of Da Vinci or Raphael? Why? Why not start with Picasso? You can’t cover them all… This knowledge should have inherent and intrinsic value. You should be able to justify your choices for their own sakes, but they also need to have extrinsic value. The choices you and your colleagues make together at KS3 must result in a curriculum that allows students to transition into KS4. Are you sure about the curriculum you’ve planned? Can you explain the choices you have made about content and sequence? If not, it’s time to pull out your schemes of work, discuss, collaborate, re-plan and quality assure. Your curriculum must be the collaborative work of a group of dedicated professionals and the product of careful and evaluative thinking. Lessons cannot be delivered on the whim of a maverick teacher who teaches what he thinks is best. Autonomy and individuality have their advantages, but also their limitations. All students must get a fair deal. We owe them consistency: the chance to access the same knowledge and skills, regardless of who happens to be their teacher. It cannot be left to chance.
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