It’s Sunday night and I’m planning my lessons for the following day. It has been nine years since I trained as a teacher and while my brain has discarded much of the training material on the Vygotsky theory of learning and circle time, I still hear my mentor’s chiasmus ring in my ear as if it were yesterday: “Fail to prepare: prepare to fail”. Whether you attribute these words to Benjamin Franklin or Irish midfielder Roy Keane, I have always found them rather useful. There’s something quite daring and visceral about the Sunday evening challenge: you’ve got a few hours to plan material that a) is relevant b) is hard c) is accessible d) is fun e) is not too fun and f) caters for different types of needs and temperaments in a 30-strong class. It’s a bit like mixing the perfect vinaigrette dressing when all elements need to be poised and portioned for it to work. I remember feeling very distressed about planning when I first set out in the profession. I proudly obtained a degree from Cambridge and yet struggled to plan a decent 40-minute lesson.
As a trainee working in a lively west London academy, planning was all about arming myself against a good blooding in the week ahead. An impressive lesson was having resources that provided the padding on the walls necessitated by my flimsy behaviour management skills. It was about keeping them busy, happy and, crucially, prepared to pass their exams. This task felt so daunting that I seriously considered leaving teaching in those early years.
Teachers' 'wastage rate'
Yet, I was more troubled by the fact that I didn’t seem to be using anything I’d learned and loved in my degree; unlike the students, I was busy but unhappy. I clearly wasn’t alone. A House of Commons briefing paper released last month reports an 11 per cent “wastage rate” of teachers in England, the highest so far this decade. This report points to workload, stagnant pay and overbearing accountability systems as the main contributing factors to teachers leaving the profession.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many teachers also left because they felt like me, distanced from their subjects in a system that seems more interested in making children behave and getting the right results for the school. Schools have plenty to focus on right now amid changing specifications and budget cuts but setting up models and systems that allow and encourage teachers to remember why they entered the profession – wanting to teach their subjects and being passionate about learning – must surely be beneficial. In the short term, students are inspired by the excitement and expertise of their teachers and, in the long term, good teachers enjoy what they do and don’t abandon education. Nine years on and I’m still in the profession, planning on Sunday nights but my onslaught in the week ahead looks a bit different. I now teach at Harris Westminster Sixth Form, a free school that opened in central London in 2014, where 16-year-olds sit tough entrance examinations and interviews to get a place at our oversubscribed warren tucked away in the former Ministry of Justice building in SW1.
Our teaching model is based on that of Westminster School, our neighbouring partner. Sixteen of our pupils got into Oxbridge this year. In a cohort of 40 per cent pupil-premium pupils, we are well on our way in our third year.
In the September’s opening assembly at Westminster Abbey, the new pupils are challenged to enquire, demand and “take on” their teachers. It’s quite intimidating when a pupils does this: “Miss, I’m not sure I agree that this is a zeugma” and “Miss, can you explain why you think that WH Auden was an anti-Romantic?” In a profession where being correct and correcting others is the norm, it is quite disconcerting to be the one getting corrected, but our pupils will either know the answer or be expected to work it out.
This Lockean principle is implemented at Westminster School and is encouraged by “loyal dissent”. It is so much a part of the scholarship that there’s even a guide on how to be “respectful yet unafraid”. It takes some getting used to but having to admit to the class “I stand corrected” is actually a thrill. It’s energising because it means they’re listening and care about getting hold of the right answers and we get to engage with the love and challenge of our subjects. So my Sunday nights feel a bit different now. I am reading, researching and re-engaging with my subject and I’ve never been happier. As we enter a crisis point in staff recruitment and retention in our schools, this is something schools must do better to keep their best staff. Make teaching about the subjects we love to teach and talk about: teaching has to be about them and us. This task is undoubtedly a lot easier in a selective sixth form, but I firmly believe that subject expertise can and must survive in any setting. It’s not about the type of students you have in front of you but the ethos that is set and modelled by senior leaders and driven by staff.
Pupils should expect hard questions, challenging tangents from the textbook, wider reading during the holidays, well-referenced resources, guidance on how to use the library and encouragement to ask difficult questions and carve out their own niche interests through their own reading lists and research projects. They should be taught about the demands of scholarship, the need for academic honesty and make some detours along the way so that they understand the context of what they’re learning for examinations. In this shift towards subject-centred learning, we might unearth some misbehaviour and questions to which we don’t know the answers to but I think it’s worth it. After all, we’re only doing our jobs well if we create a generation of more respectful and brave minds to take on the world. Charlotte Fox is a teacher at Harris Westminster Sixth Form