'You're my favourite teacher': Why popularity can overshadow the quality of teaching when it comes to choosing option subjects

Paul Woodward
11th May 2018 at 18:03

Maybe it's just me and my attitude to teaching in general or perhaps it's because I started teaching in an era which was much like when I was a student; a time where you taught what you thought was best and students either liked it or lumped it. If you were a good teacher they more than often liked it and you earned the respect of the students simply by knowing your stuff, inspiring them to do their best and by being honest and fair (even if you had to be quite firm occasionally).

Nowadays things are very different; students seem to be far more judgemental towards teachers and not always in a good way. We have all seen the cartoon depicting the teacher being questioned by the parents as to why the student has failed to get the grade they "expected". It's not just a cartoon, it really is a little too near to the truth for most of us – and often it's the parents we need to get on side, too.

Student voice, student panels and schools taking an increased interest in the opinions of students are just the start, and websites like Rate My teachers further reinforce the idea that it's important to be liked by students. I’m sure there are positive aspects to this but when you are considered to be a good teacher on the basis of your favourite biscuit or football team, it's all gone a bit wrong! I will never forget the first time I saw the spread of sweets, crisps and cakes intended for a class of students rather than a staff birthday. None of these were for any fundraising event; they were simply an attempt to gain popularity through being a "cool" teacher who gives treats to students on some "made up" occasion like "Fast Food Friday" or "Cake Wednesday". It's certainly something I have never encouraged in my departments, other than on the last day of term before Christmas. But maybe I am a bit of Scrooge.

If this really is a modern-day approach to teaching, how does it apply to design and technology? Well, at one time the subject was compulsory and, as a result, many of us can recall having students who were less than happy to be studying the subject and even more resistant to doing any work. And let's be honest, many of them shouldn't have been there in the first place...but then it all changed. D&T was no longer compulsory and the way of attracting interest was to extol the virtues of studying D&T or by showing them some of the cool things they could make using whizz-bang tools and machinery. This used to be enough, especially for the less academically inclined student, but recently it all changed again. Thanks to the EBacc and its constant demands for core and "academic" subjects, creative and practical subjects in the "open bucket" such as D&T have become even harder to sell to students and, as a result, we have to work that little bit harder to attract students to study at GCSE and beyond.

'D&T needs to remain as attractive as possible'

Sadly, being a good teacher is not always enough to do that. This subject may once have had a large proportion of the final award made up of coursework rather than exam but now it's 50/50. The exam itself has become more demanding and the coursework, which once so heavily relied on making stuff you could take home, allocates just 15 per cent of the award to manufacture with a potentially unattractive prototype outcome rather than a nice "product" at the end.

Popularity is short-lived and today's favourite teacher is tomorrow's ogre once they start giving out sanctions and detentions, because genuine mutual respect is something much harder to achieve. Having had a few years' experience in education, it’s clear to me that a smiling happy face from a student is worth more than being teacher of the month on the staffroom notice board. It’s far more rewarding when that student you were convinced hated you in Year 11 comes back in September to tell you how their life turned around because of the time you put into helping them. When you bump into a student 20 years later who tells you that you were the best teacher they had and inspired them to choose a particular route in life, the feeling of pride far outweighs a box of chocolates at the end of term, even if they are much appreciated.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a supporter of the latest technology but also of craftwork and the skill of the artisan. The subject has evolved from the latter and more towards the former lately, but therein lies the problem. While the subject may be more relevant to the prospects of a designer or engineer, it has lost some of that instant appeal to the more practically minded student and may well continue to do so.

At a time where the subject is struggling with sufficient numbers to thrive, D&T needs to remain as attractive as possible. Shiny machines and a reliance on coursework are not always enough and teachers may well feel that they should make the subject "cool" in order to be popular with their students. However, given the current situation in education, just be sure you are not "selling a dream" just to get bums on seats. You might get them to sign up but once they have spent a few months in your subject they might just discover that, in many ways, the sweetie jar has most definitely gone from the subject.

Paul has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England