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Lower the revs or face burnout

Teaching has become fixed in the fast lane, whether it’s competitive marking or the drive to produce perfect fast-paced lessons. But, as Jamie Thom writes, there’s a new ‘slow’ movement on the march

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Teaching has become fixed in the fast lane, whether it’s competitive marking or the drive to produce perfect fast-paced lessons. But, as Jamie Thom writes, there’s a new ‘slow’ movement on the march

Bleary, bloodshot eyes glance at the clock: 10pm. Weary hands reach for another strong cup of coffee. The epic to-do list sneers cruelly, and is joined by the set of books that must be marked this evening. Yet again, that most tired of teacher clichés tumbles out of your mouth: “There just isn’t enough time!”

I was once the complete embodiment of life in the teaching fast lane, flying through long days in autopilot, fuelled by caffeine and stress. I had no conception of how to reflect on my practice or how to best use my time. It was treadmill-teaching.

As I blindly sped into a management role, this lack of deliberation meant that I became less and less effective and more overwhelmed. Such an approach led to inevitable burnout and disillusionment.

It was then that I began to seriously invest in forging a new, “slow” professional philosophy. My mission: to find a way to orchestrate the busy world of education – one that is calm, organised, and results in the improved progress of young people.

It’s all about slow teaching. This is no gimmick and there is no simple solution, but with discipline and reflection, our teaching world need not be so unrelenting.

The passport to a more serene and productive way of teaching in part lies in our ability to think and plan strategically. This involves embracing what Henry Ford called “the calmness that the long view of life gives us”.

Education has recently been fixated on the fast: the delivery of rapid-paced, yet still outstanding, lessons has defined what is judged as successful teaching. We are taught little about how to factor in the retention of knowledge, or how to plan holistically for the long-term success of young people.

Now, the slow curriculum conversation is finally gaining momentum. The demanding nature of changes to the curriculum in recent times has necessitated more thoughtful dialogue about the long-term vision of teaching. Gone are speedy coursework fixes.

Excellent new books, such as Peps Mccrae’s Memorable Teaching and Alex Quigley’s The Confident Teacher, are assisting our understanding of the complexity of memory and how to teach for retention. The new Ofsted chief herself, Amanda Spielman, has made the substance of the curriculum a priority, too.

We are no longer being defined by our ability to put on a show; we are being judged on our capacity to decelerate, to slowly and incrementally deepen young people’s knowledge over time.

So how can we, as individual teachers, take ownership of this new direction? We shouldn’t fly into the trap of planning for individual lessons; rather, we should take time to consider the skills that we want our students to grasp over a longer period of time. Knowledge organisers are key in facilitating this, allowing complete clarity of the direction and purpose of each unit of work.

In our desire to engage, we may be overlooking the investment in time needed to ensure our own content and examination knowledge is secure; an improved understanding of this would enable us to better address student misconceptions, as well as give us confidence.

Avoiding elaborate PowerPoint fixes may well help us to begin to focus on lesson content, rather than flashy presentation. Slowly crafted dialogue or exemplar material should provide the substance of lessons that carefully guide students toward quality outcomes. We cannot just race through content; by planning in low-stakes testing, we can return periodically to knowledge and ensure that it has been securely, strategically learned.

The theatre of teaching

There is no doubt that there is performance in the art of teaching. We are, of course, a hugely visually breed; how we behave in our classroom has a marked and transferable effect on our students.

Masters of the teaching craft display a confident wisdom coupled with a tranquil everyday persona: they are calm and assertive. The good news is that with deliberate practice, we lesser mortals can engineer our classroom management to achieve a similar poise.

The first step is simple: consciously slowing ourselves down. By reflecting on our range of non-verbal signals and body language, we can start to see more clearly how we are communicating in our classrooms. We may also begin to appreciate how young people mirror our habits; a realisation of this helps to build quieter, more restrained classrooms.

How often are we asked by students to repeat instructions or points? How much of what we say is lost amid the thousands of words young people are exposed to every day? While it would be ludicrous to imply that we should maintain a consistent pace for long periods of time, there is something magical that happens when we drop both the volume and speed of our speech.

When we need our pupils to focus, recall and listen deliberately, slowing down our speech can ensure they lean in; it also helps with retention of information.

To further ensure retention, as all teachers will know, questioning in our classrooms is vital. Yet the frequent use of this pedagogical tool inevitably gives rise to speed-questioning: rattling off questions without due consideration. Not enough reflective thinking time is allowed for after questions have been posed; young people are asked to instantly formulate thoughts so often that they often give up.

Also underused is the process of slowing down to plan out challenging questions, pausing to allow students to consider their own and each other’s responses, and granting time to extend answers. This is important for cultivating a classroom culture based on high expectations and real enquiry.

Praise for pupils is another victim of speed-induced practice. Throwing “superb”, “excellent” and “outstanding” around like confetti hampers both motivation and effort. Suppressing the instinct to dish out instant praise is vital if we are to ensure young people understand that expectations are high for both verbal and written responses. Praise should instead be directly related to effort and excellence; this in turn should inspire young people to persevere to produce work that is a reflection of their best efforts.

It is a conundrum that drives teachers to despair: we know feedback is important, but it is stealing huge amounts of our energy. What is often a poor use of time, however, is slavish and mindless marking, not feedback. There is a bizarre competitive element at play here, with “warrior markers” proclaiming loudly how they have been up all hours marking. Yet quality feedback does not equate to repetitive comments that are cursorily glanced at by students.

Quality feedback is reflective and strategic, involving careful planning of what will be marked for students’ benefit, and when. It is about considering carefully what will happen as a result of time invested: how will this feedback move that young person towards excellence in a particular subject?

Then comes marking’s underappreciated cousin: verbal feedback. It is here that young people can develop a real understanding of how to improve their work. Making time for meaningful conversations can transform relationships and the work of young people; a chat can have a much greater impact than hastily scrawled sentences.

When we rush through our days, we miss the numerous joys of teaching: the boundless variety of young people; the passion that we feel and share for our subjects; the gratitude for colleagues who fuel our spirits every day. We forget to smile and gather perspective. But in recognising that teaching is a profession in which we need to reflect, we can then take ownership of how best we use our time.

Jamie Thom is an English teacher at Cramlington Learning Village. His book Slow Teaching: A guide to finding calm, organisation and impact in the classroom will be published in February

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