Slow Teaching: on finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom
By Jamie Thom
Jamie Thom makes a timely argument for a more measured approach to education. There appears to be no end in sight of the culture of data-driven scrutiny and accountability that emanates from the Department for Education and Ofsted. This culture permeates through the whole system, from headteachers to Reception pupils.
New, harder exams multiply the stress within the system. Teachers find themselves spending every waking hour planning, differentiating, feeding back on the response to the feedback, chasing homework, running revision sessions and attending meetings. No wonder there are horrifying statistics about new teachers leaving the profession. We need to reverse the pace of education for the good of teachers and children.
Thom shares how his fast-and-hard approach to his teaching career caused him to burn out during his first few years in senior leadership. He realised for the sake of his health and of his marriage that he needed to find another approach. In the closing chapters, he describes how he was sceptical about mindfulness and meditation, but then realised the positive impact of this approach and how he could build it into his schedule.
Unfortunately, neither of these strategies are at the heart of the book, nor are any strategies to change daily practice that could slow down the hectic pace of a teacher’s existence. Instead, the heart of this book is essentially a manual on how to teach well.
Thom is well-versed in the contemporary educational zeitgeist. The advice of educational luminaries such as Carol Dweck, Ron Berger, Dylan William and Susan Cain are repeatedly referenced. He efficiently summarises the conclusions of educationists and suggests how teachers could implement the ideas in their classroom. The ultimate goal of this is that you will be a better planned, more reflective teacher and more positive relationships with your pupils.
As I read through this wise advice, I began to feel increasing levels of anxiety about the work I would need to do to become a “Slow Teacher”. I’d have to tidy my classroom to become a minimalist haven; make a year-long plan for each class; make a half-termly plan for each class; design assessments; make knowledge organisers for every topic; increase my subject knowledge; practise my body language; contact parents regularly – the “to do” list goes on. Far from feeling that I needed to slow down, I felt a tide of guilt wash over me that I wasn’t working hard enough and that I was in some way failing my pupils.
Each chapter finishes with a list of “Slow Questions”. These are great prompts to make teachers think about their current practice and give clear sign posts as to the way to progress. These questions on their own would be a very powerful professional development tool. Yet, as I read through and checked them off in my head – “No, I don’t do that!”, “I must do that as soon as possible”, “Why didn’t I think of that!” – my “to-do” list and my blood pressure continued to grow.
In Thom’s haste to include as much advice from contemporary educational thinkers, the truths that they profess are rarely analysed or debated. He begins to include a few pieces of advice that are not accepted as good pedagogical practice by every researcher.
For example, there is quite a lot of guidance about using non-verbal signals with pupils, but research about the adolescent brain has shown how poor teenagers are at reading facial expressions and empathising with others. Some lessons from Teach Like a Champion are also included. Impactful though Doug Lemov’s approach might be, it seems the antithesis of a “Slow Teaching” approach.
These criticisms aside, Slow Teaching provides a comprehensive digest of contemporary thinking about what factors contribute towards effective teaching. It covers every aspect of a teacher’s life, from effective pausing to long-term planning. Every page contains useful advice and guidance that could benefit every teacher. The writing is engaging and accessible.
If you haven’t been keeping up with contemporary pedagogical thinking and would like some ideas about how to update your practice, this book is good place to start. And if you are new to the profession, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
However, if you are looking for a book that challenges the pace of modern teaching, the slow revolution will not start here.
John Stanier is assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon