My youngest daughter and I discuss all sorts of things during the half-hour school run: her inevitably yo-yoing friendships, too much homework, terrorism. But this week she spent almost the entire journey singing the praises of one of her teachers. A teacher she singled out because she enjoys her lessons so much and learns so much from her. A teacher who does something no other teacher at my daughter’s school ever does. Not one.
So what is her secret? What makes time spent with this teacher so productive and enjoyable? Are her lessons more fun, learner-centric, project-based or kinesthetic? Is she a master of evidence-based, up-to-date research?
Surprisingly, my daughter’s voluntary eulogy started with PowerPoint. She explained how she’d just realised that one of the reasons why this particular teacher was so good was because she used her own PowerPoint slides, not someone else’s. Unlike another teacher she named, who uses several different presentations at the same time, none of them her own, and as a result never knows where she is or what she is teaching. No, this teacher is the best because, in my daughter’s view, she creates all her own stuff and knows it inside out. Whether it’s a set of slides, paperwork or a practical activity, it’s abundantly clear to the children she teaches that she put it together.
Of course once we got into a discussion, I discovered she is also highly organised, her lessons follow almost the same pattern every day, and she sets homework that reinforces what the girls learn in lessons. But in essence, what my daughter spotted is something no one ever told me when I trained in the 1980s, yet it is probably the single most important thing one can teach a teacher.
The relationship between you and the material you choose to build your lessons is absolutely central to your efficacy in the classroom. That is why models that create then deliver “content” to teachers only ever deliver mediocre results in the classroom.
I saw confirmation of this a few months ago in an article about Jack Spatola, the principal of a Brooklyn elementary school which has enjoyed long running success going back decades. Success any school facing equally severe challenges would die for. Mr Spatola made this comment, “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.” Which is why Mr Spatola spends scarce dollars on primary texts, fiction and non-fiction, but never on textbooks.
If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum. One of the most insightful and valuable comments I have seen in many years, and one which visitors to this week’s BETT show would do well to heed. In 2015 just under 45,000 people visited the BETT show, 69 per cent of them from the UK, making it arguably the single most important educational event of the annual calendar in this country.
BETT will buzz with excitement. Hordes of teachers glad to get out of the classroom will stagger under the weight of brochures, free biros and educational knick knacks foisted on them by smiling sales staff, but precious little will happen as a result to impact on the classrooms those excited visitors will return to.
So many of the businesses at BETT, so many of the heads, teachers and policy-makers being paid to improve schools, would benefit simply by adopting the single insight my daughter worked out for herself last week. If you want to be a great teacher, then own what you teach.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant, researcher and author