How tidying up my teaching put the joy back in the job

Paring down your teaching into simpler formats not only boosts wellbeing but also improves learning. Using the research and her personal experience, Jo Facer argues the case for a much tidier teaching philosophy
6th September 2019, 12:04am
How Cleaning Brought The Joy Back To My Teaching
Jo Facer

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How tidying up my teaching put the joy back in the job

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-tidying-my-teaching-put-joy-back-job

Reading Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was, for a messy person like me, a revelation. Here, at last, was a simple guide to tidying up my home and, by proxy, my life: if it does not "spark joy", Kondo instructs, bin it.

Soon after finishing the book, I set to work. On a single day, I piled up any item of clothing that did not feel joyful enough in that moment, and I gifted the local charity shop four bin bags of used garments.

It felt amazing. I was proud of myself. But it was short-lived: within a few months, I stood in front of a wardrobe that was, once-again, full to bursting. And worse, I still had nothing to wear. What had gone wrong?

Unfortunately, most of us seem strangely connected to our clutter. We like to imagine ourselves as mess-free, super-efficient beings, but we cling to our disorder for comfort, even though we know it is wrong.

And the same is true of teaching: take a step back, and you can begin to see the chaos and the mess and how damaging some of our habits can be. Yet our PowerPoint slides and our photocopying have become comforters we seemingly cannot bear to be without.

What we need is a Kondo-like model that we can stick to. Fortunately, for teaching at least, it just so happens I have one.

Before Kondo came to prominence, I had already Kondo'd my teaching. And unlike with my wardrobe, I have stuck with it. While I'm still extremely messy at school in literal terms - one of the actions in the minutes of my last line-management meeting, mortifyingly, was to tidy my desk - my teaching practice is as simple as it comes.

So here, for your consideration, are the secrets to (and the joys of) tidy teaching.

Step 1: identify the problem

When I trained to be a teacher in 2010, teaching was packed full of clutter. We were encouraged to employ variety and engagement at the cost of all else. Here are a few examples of things I was told:

  • Use Edward de Bono's thinking hats Why hats? Why not socks? Who had time to cut out all those cardboard hats? When would a science lesson involve considering the "emotions" hat? I have so many questions …
  • Have a "fun" pre-starter "so they lose out if they're late" This was optimistic at best, at worst a piece of pure trolling of inexperienced teachers.
  • Use Socratic seminars Place half the class in an outer ring, with the other half making an inner ring. The outer half takes notes on a discussion the inner has and then everyone feeds back at the end. Teacher involvement? Scribing their final feedback on the board, which was usually: "We need to listen to each other more."

We were also encouraged to deploy acting, hot-seating, "conscience alley", argument ping pong, freeze frames and "forum theatre". I once wrote down 17 ideas for "warm-up games" before beginning a play by Shakespeare. Not one was even remotely connected to Shakespeare.

The best way to describe my classroom that first year was anarchic. But the advice I received was to make my teaching messier, not to simplify it.

When trying to teach my Year 8 class Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a lesson in which not a single pupil learned what the caged bird might represent or why, my feedback from an observer began with an instruction to "use a photograph of a real caged bird and not a cartoon caged bird".

It went on: "Could you give a parallel in this lesson to the events in Burma on Saturday?"

Could I? I was waking up at 5am to plan or mark before heading into school for 7.30am, then coming home and planning or marking again until 10pm or later. I hadn't watched the news in months. So no, I could not.

"No mini-plenary?" it continued. "What briefing had you given your teaching assistant? Could students have used the interactive whiteboard? How could you keep the pace going? What plenary task could leave them excited about what they had achieved today?"

Dutifully, I took the feedback on board and added some more hours to my planning schedule. And everything got worse: behaviour, learning, engagement, my workload and ultimately my passion for the job. But for my most difficult class, I was forced to try something different.

Year 10 were studying To Kill a Mockingbird, and not knowing what to do with a class novel after I'd done all the usual hooks based on guessing what the front cover suggested and showing the film trailer, I proceeded to just read it. I would take occasional volunteers to save my voice, but largely I just read it to them.

My once trickiest class suddenly became lambs. In my teaching journal I noted with bafflement: "They do very well with uncomplicated work."

Unfortunately, those who visited my classroom and offered advice were available to smash any sense of this being successful practice out of me: "Think about gradually building lessons up to more explorative and insightful activities," read one lesson's feedback. It added: "Year 10 are working comfortably - think about how to slowly stretch this into more profound learning."

I feel quite angry about this in retrospect. I feel angry for the children. These pupils were in the bottom set because they could not read or write very well, and all we had been focused on was entertaining them and making it "engaging". They rioted. Yet, when given a long and difficult book to read, they were settled, happy, learning. They knew, better than we did, that they needed this kind of work to succeed.

It was at this moment that I began my journey into a more tidy form of teaching.

Step 2: get into the right mindset

This stage began when I moved to another inner-city school with a similarly challenging intake. Here, everyone raved about Mr Hartley. I arranged to observe a lesson he was teaching as soon as I could and, entering his room, I noticed that, although he was 40 minutes into a double lesson, the slide on his board remained the first slide - title, date and a learning objective. All the pupils were doing was reading a poem - one single handout. Mr Hartley also had the same handout.

Years before the Kondo revolution, Mr Hartley had pared his teaching practice back to "just the joy".

Most remarkably, this was an intervention class - set five out of seven, and full of tricky characters. Yet here they were, angelically listening and furiously annotating as the teacher led a whole-class discussion. He asked question after question to ensure they were listening and understood what he was saying, and he elaborated on their ideas and instructed them on what to write down.

It was unlike any lesson I had ever seen before. Where was the PowerPoint presentation? Where were the multiple worksheets? Where was the group work?

It appeared to me that Mr Hartley was simply talking to the class, and that they were listening and writing. It was everything I had been told in training to never, ever do.

Could it be, I wondered, that simplifying lessons was in fact better for children?

Step 3: begin the sorting

I hit the books. I started with Why Don't Students Like School?, in which Daniel Willingham argues that children remember what they think about, so lessons should help pupils to focus on the content they have to learn, not the fun activities you have planned to try and make the content palatable.

If I was trying to hook them in by encouraging them to run around the drama studio acting like soldiers in a battle, then what they would remember was running around the room pretending to be soldiers. If I taught my pupils how to use punctuation using bread, all they would remember was "the time we made a sandwich". And if I taught them how to come up with success criteria by judging an orange and then eating it, this would simply become "that time Miss got rid of her excess fruit".

I then read Curious by Ian Leslie, who noted "knowledge loves knowledge", and that while isolated facts feel pointless, if you teach enough of them children begin to make a web of that knowledge and have deeper understanding of difficult concepts. When I considered my pupils' prior knowledge, I realised I had offered them none. When I asked one class what they thought the red associated with Curley's wife in Of Mice and Men might represent, I met with blank faces and one brave volunteer: "Jam?"

Next, I moved on to Make it Stick by Peter C Brown, Henry Roediger III and Mark A McDaniel, which taught me that constant low-stakes testing would help children commit new learning to memory. I tried it out immediately and, suddenly, by continually revisiting past concepts at the start of the lesson, I found a group of children who could remember what they had been taught, meaning I could get on with teaching them more.

And finally I raced through the Deans for Impact report Practice with Purpose (bit.ly/practice_purpose), which revealed that not all practice was effective, that I had to really think about what children needed to practise, and then build in supported extended tasks at the right time in the right way. Rather than give children heaps of practice talking to each other in groups or creating pictures to capture their thinking - things they were already exceptionally good at - I instead needed to make them write and read more, to practise things in which they were not expert.

I got to work changing my practice. Gone were the 42-slide PowerPoints (I wish this were hyperbole), gone were the multiple worksheets, and sugar paper, and board markers, and YouTube clips, and background music, and acting out a poem, and hot-seating each other as I smiled on from the back, annoyed they still hadn't understood the simplest idea of characterisation in a novel.

What was left hanging in my pedagogical wardrobe? A formula that I was going to stick with for every single lesson.

  • Recap
    I would start with a recap that revisited prior learning. This simple, short quiz starter required limited preparation and no explanation. I could ensure a calm and purposeful opening to every lesson by simply pointing at the board. The recap would be a mix of unit-specific concepts and what we'd learned in previous units. The more students revisited those past concepts, the more they would remember.
  • New content
    Following the recap, we would move to instruction of new content - put simply, reading the text - with lots of questioning and discussion to help understanding.
    With the time freed up from sourcing appropriate images and cutting up card sorts, I would be able to focus on the thing that mattered: the lesson content. I would read ahead and annotate the text with the ideas I wanted to draw out and the questions I wanted to ask.

 

  • Practice
    Finally, we'd move on to guided, independent practice with feedback.

Step 4: implementation

How did it go? Did it spark joy in both me and my pupils?

Contrary to the fears of my teacher educators of 2010, having the same lesson format each day did not disengage the learners. Instead, they thrived.

The certainty of coming in every lesson and knowing what to do was what brought them to my door (early, for the first time in my career), not an "exciting" video clip. Feeling successful in their low-stakes quiz built their motivation, so they were ready for new instruction.

A calm and purposeful classroom enabled me to circulate during extended writing, so they wrote more and I gave more "live" feedback as they worked. Rather than marking every book and giving up time with my friends and family, I looked at their books more frequently - every week, sometimes twice a week - and noted whole-class feedback to reteach the next lesson. Instead of focusing on fun, I focused on purposeful practice; instead of exam cramming, I focused on long-term memory.

Now, I don't want to paint an unrealistic utopian vision here. Does every child come skipping to my classroom? Sadly not.

"This is boring," says Adam, at the door every lesson. "Are we reading again?"

But he's managed a grade 5 on his last two exams, compared with a grade 2 last year. So something is working. At parents' evening, I shared the good news with Adam's mum, who beamed. "I only wish," I followed up, "that he didn't hate English".

"I don't hate English," came his immediate reply. I was struck speechless with joy.

At what cost all this simplicity, you may ask? Is there not comfort in chaos, memories in mess and a danger in ditching treasured teaching techniques for the bare shelves of simplicity? Certainly, Kondo has faced that criticism. And I have, too.

I don't deny that there is less "fun" in this simplicity. If you think of your favourite lesson you were taught at school, it may well be one full of the techniques I was taught to use. But here's the thing: what did the lesson teach you? When you ask this, people really, really struggle. They remember the novelty, not the learning.

I am not anti-fun: I am advocating "joy", here, after all. But I believe we need to stop trying to compete with what our pupils already find fun and try and show them that there is a different kind of fun to be had through learning. There is still "fun" in analysing a poem or solving a tricky equation, but it is a very different kind of fun to Fortnite or YouTube.

I do realise that "tidy teaching" is not for everyone. I am a pragmatist: if messy teaching works for you, wonderful. But I've seen too many colleagues crack under the strain of planning, racing to the photocopier at 8.27am streaming with sweat, ultimately leaving the profession because they wanted to have a family - or even just an evening off from time to time.

Teaching is a great job - the greatest. It is a service, a calling, a vocation. All these things are true. But it cannot be the only thing in our lives. If we make our jobs the only thing, what happens after a bad lesson, a bad day of lessons; a new headteacher who makes us do things we don't believe help children; a redundancy?

None of these things should break us. We have to have more in our lives because teaching is a really emotional job, a hard job; one in which we are confronted daily with the challenges of society and, on some days, our relative powerlessness to overturn ingrained beliefs and perceptions and habits.

The only way to achieve this, as far as I can see, is tidy teaching.

Step 5: the compromise

What I propose is hard. It's not for everyone. Just like Kondo, I have set the bar high. So I offer you this.

I felt a great release when I lugged those bags of clothes to the charity shop, and (for a short while) I could definitely navigate my wardrobe more simply. Life was easier with fewer choices.

But a few weeks after the clearout I was looking for my black jeans that only nearly fit, and the realisation struck that I'd clearly thrown them away. They hadn't "sparked" enough "joy", apparently. Which is odd, because now I can remember only how much I loved them, how often I'd worn them (not nearly enough), and, crucially, that I had absolutely nothing else that would go with the particular jumper I'd decided to wear.

In my teaching, too, I have discovered that some of the discarded items definitely do still have a place in my classroom.

Are all my lessons just reading the text and answering some questions on it? Nearly. But I also dug up an old quiz from the bad old days on An Inspector Calls. It was one about the students' own beliefs, and the idea was to get them to think about whether they tended more towards Mr Birling's capitalist thinking, or the Inspector's socialism. It wasn't the very simplest way of teaching the play, but it helped the children to grapple with some difficult ideas. They enjoyed debating the issues, and I think it will help them to lock into the themes and context of the play a little more easily.

So perhaps my advice should be to proceed with caution. Forego the finality of the tidying catharsis. Invest in a good-sized loft. Stick all your extraneous lesson activities in there, and instead roll out a simple lesson. Go home earlier to be with your friends and family.

But be prepared to grab the ladder every so often. You never know when a class might need just a smidgen of chaos: in moderation, it can certainly still spark joy.

Jo Facer is principal designate of Ark Soane Academy, a new school opening in Acton Town in September 2020. She writes regularly at readingallthebooks.com, and her book, Simplicity Rules, is published by Routledge. She tweets @jo_facer

This article originally appeared in the 6 August 2019 issue under the headline "The secret to (and joy of) tidy teaching"

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