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I want to become an advanced skills teacher. How can I improve my teaching after 20 years in the classroom?

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

No improvement is possible without change. If you teach exactly the same way you have always done, you will not get any better. You will have to unscramble patterns of behaviour that have been laid down over many years.

Many teachers engage, on average, in 1,000 exchanges (for example, being asked a question, praising someone's work) in a single day. A thousand interactions a day means 5,000 a week, and 200,000 a year, so you may well have had four million in your career so far. You have probably asked more than a million questions (I bet you knew the answer to most of them; people have been locked away for less). It is hard work to unpick familiar strategies that have stood you in good stead.

Look at specifics, one by one, over a period of time: how you explain things to pupils, handling group work, discipline and class management, the nature of the tasks you set in class and for homework, your relationships with children and fellow teachers, the assessment of children's work, using classroom assistants, working with parents, how you teach more able and less able pupils, and assess the wider contribution you make to the school.

A well-respected colleague might watch you teach and offer advice.

Classroom observation should not just be used for appraisal and performance management. Ask the head if you can visit other schools where you know excellent work is going on in your field. It may be troublesome to arrange in the short term, but there will be longer-term gains for the school.

Finally, remember that helping others is a vital part of being an advanced skills teacher, so learn how to analyse lessons and offer constructive advice, and how to support colleagues lacking confidence or experience.

You say

Share your skills

You've made the first step. You have recognised that the classroom is the key location in the school and that quality in the classroom counts. After 20 years you have a huge amount of experience and can now afford to take risks, so try something new. Go back to planning your lessons in detail and think about objectives, beginnings and endings. Imagine you are just starting out, but this time you can access all your accumulated wisdom.

Discuss classroom practice with colleagues. Follow some pupils round for a day. You'll be astonished at how a school day looks to them. If you were a pupil, what would you want from your lesson? Share the experience you have with younger teachers. It is your duty to maintain the continuity between the generations - pass on what you know because the job won't be yours forever. This is what it means to be an advanced skills teacher. It is more than a title.

Geoff Brookes, secondary deputy head, Swansea

Put the learner first

You can always practise the craft element of the job. When I was on teaching practice more than 25 years ago, I remember Dorothy Heathcote (an advanced skills teacher if ever there was one) consciously rolling up her sleeves before starting the lesson. Pupils took the cue and were magically ready for action.

These tricks can be constantly honed, yet only provide the foundation to the other aspect of the job, which makes the work so all-consuming and fascinating; the indefinable spine-tingling part that we seek every day and only occasionally experience. I see the advanced skills teacher providing inspiration for others by being constantly adaptable, flexible and looking at the world through fresh eyes, understanding there's always another way, another approach, better resources which provide increased learning opportunities for pupils. In this respect, it's an attitude of mind.

In the past few weeks, I've seen a Year 1 teacher get her class counting bubbles as she blew them across the classroom. I've listened to a Year 6 teacher describe the flight of a peregrine falcon and have the class in rapture. I've watched a Year 2 teacher allow her class to make footprints in the snow. Putting the learner first, isn't that what teaching is about? You can never stop searching or improving in this area.

Bob Fletcher, primary head, London

The important stuff works

Do a reality check on your professional skills as teacher and mentor. If your students consistently make significant progress, if you make a real difference to their achievement, and if you create secure and caring relationships, then you have high order skills. How much do you want to use those skills to help other teachers? If you're not quite there, ask yourself questions. Be proud of what you do well, embrace what gives you difficulty, and remember it's the classroom where real learning takes place, whether you're a teacher or a child.

You know you have had one year's experience repeated 20 times, you've already taken a huge step. Get yourself a mentor and set yourself targets.

Take pride in your successes, be sanguine about setbacks, and hold your nerve. Remember, the important stuff - planning properly, using marking to assess students, being ready to welcome the children, having clear yet reasonable protocols for behaviour - isn't sexy, but it works. Show students by your actions that you care for them, and give them the flexibility that as an adult you would want as a right.

Spokey Wheeler, The Wavell school, Farnborough

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