Live at the Rose Bowl: Groundhog Day at the Teach First Impact Conference 2015

29th July 2015 at 19:42

Teaching the Tough Young Teachers

by Tom Bennett


Once a year every Teach Firster in the kingdom returns, like salmon, to Leeds for their annual seance/conference, doubling the city's demand for clean wifi and live sacrifices in the process. Imagine if the Scientologists ran Grange Hill. A terracotta army of beautiful, ambitious men and women swarm from training session to session, hungry, enthusiastic, by demons driven. These children of the Nephilim must be fed, and 4000 engines of enthusiasm and optimism take a lot of feeding. I was asked to bring fresh brains, so I brought what I had left. 

I was asked to co-present a session with Becky Allen on research, as well as lead one on behaviour; although some Jasper in events thought it would be jokes for "one session" to mean "three of them in a row". If you teach a Groundhog Day like that in school, you know that can be a boon (by the end your delivery is as tight as Lord Sewel’s bra strap) or a boot in the saddle (there’s only so long you can sprint before you start to forget what you said). Still, they built it, I came. 

I’ve been asked to look into disruption in lessons by Nicky Morgan, with a view to making some recommendations specifically about teacher training. But something I am very often asked is how effective the individual teacher can be if the school system is weak. I think that the school culture, the way that it systematically responds to, and anticipates pupil behaviour, is crucial to the behavioural climate of a school. We’re fond of using medical analogies, so consider this: a hospital could be staffed entirely by amazing doctors and porters, etc, but if the management is weak, people still die like flies because no one ordered bandages or booked a theatre. Same with schools. You can be a fantastic teacher, with great classroom skills, but if the school itself is chaos, you’ll only ever be able to succeed despite the school, rather than because of it.

What do I mean? A school where nothing is ever escalated; where senior staff aren’t visible; where the headteacher doesn’t drive a clear vision of the culture they expect; where teachers all use different standards, different consequences, different expectations; where children can create their own rules in public areas in the absence of any community ones. That kind of school. Even if you’re Doug Lemov combined with Mr Bronson, armed with a battle-axe and a laser, you’ll only ever – at the most – be able to run your own patch with any routine, like a warlord or a chieftain in a failed state. And success is so, so much harder. 

The culture of the school is vital; if it’s poor, and expectations are low, loose or irresponsible, kids learn bad habits, not good, and every lesson is an exercise in unpicking that pattern and hand-stitching a better one. Tough call even for the tough and the young. 

But I refuse to counsel helplessness. There are always things teachers can do in any situation to improve it. Good habits and routines must be inculcated in teachers so that they can be inculcated in their charges. Progress is harder, slower, in unstable schools, but possible. And we can never stop trying to make things better, however we find it. That, surely, is any teacher or school’s mission. Leave your spot in a better state than when you first stepped in it. And besides, good teachers eventually become leaders, and perhaps we can reinvent the forgotten skill of running a tight behaviour system inside a powerful and positive culture that values and celebrates civility, achievement and character. If every teacher we train in behaviour management takes the lessons of their classroom into the headteacher’s office, then we’ll start to see the ship turn. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. As ever, we play a long game.  

The audiences were, as usual with Teach First events, terrifyingly young, digitally literate and slender against my grizzled Caliban capering. At times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t teaching my Year 13 class (it helped that my sessions at the conference were better attended than said classes). No one rocked on their chair. No one hummed. No one asked if I was a real teacher. And I was content. It’s a delight to talk to people at the start of their careers. And if I can pass on the smallest scrap of guidance to steer past the rocks that once scuppered me, I’m a very happy man indeed. I finished the day with my duet with Becky Allen of Education Datalab, talking about research in schools, who provided the meat, the bones, the very vertebrae to my jazz hands, smoke and mirrors. It’s heartening to see new teachers start to take an interest in evidence, substantiating their beliefs, and questioning what we teach, why and how. There’s just a chance, if we don’t stumble, to build a herd immunity into our profession against cant and BS. Maybe. 

Then, home before I got love-bombed and buried in the belly of the Wicker Man. The Sons and Daughters of Wigdortz will have to dine on other tsars and monsters tonight, and I live to blog another day.