Dear Ted

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
What's the most useful thing anyone has ever said to you that's had a real influence on how you teach?

Ted Wragg, emeritus 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

Ted says

That's easy, because it has influenced me almost every day of my life. It came from a wise old Welshman who was one of the best teachers I have ever met. As a young lecturer I watched him expound a topic he must have taught many times. The class was enthralled.

Full of admiration, I asked him how he managed to maintain such enthusiasm and freshness for a subject he might easily have found tedious after so many years. "There's nothing mysterious about it," he replied. "I just tell myself: it might be the 50th time for you, but it's the first time for them."

Not all tips will translate to others. Some are more suited to the giver of the tip than the receiver. I remember a man who used to start the first lesson of the year with any difficult class by crouching under his huge oak desk and standing up with it on his shoulders. He was built like the proverbial brick outhouse, so the "don't tangle with me" message was crystal clear. Imagine the embarrassment, if you are less ox-like, of trying the same trick, collapsing under the weight, and having to be rescued by the fire brigade.

I once analysed tips that had been offered to new teachers by more experienced practitioners. The most common by far was "start more strictly than you mean to go on". Yet many teachers disobey this "don't smile until Christmas" rubric. I have observed quite strict teachers who were full of humour from the beginning, but the demarcation lines were clear. Good tips are useful, but they are no immunisation against lousy teaching. The receiver has to work just as hard as the giver must have done.

You say

Time to be happy

Two tips immediately come to mind. The first is one my PGCE tutor gave me five years ago: "Every future moment is contained in this one." I've found this useful in terms of building relationships with students and thinking about long-term teaching and learning.

The second is something my mentor said to me when I was an NQT, and I think about it almost every day when I'm teaching: "If a student is happy that they are learning, they will be happy to learn." It comes back to me if a lesson isn't going as I'd hoped, and it helps me to change my approach mid-lesson.

Angela McOwan, Surrey

Reflect pupils' glory

As a harassed PGCE student dealing with less than attentive pupils, I once said to my mentor: "I suppose you have to be the most interesting thing in the room to hold their attention."

"No," she replied. "You have to make them see that they are the most interesting thing in the room - their potential and their abilities are what really count."

John Gallagher, Coventry

Score where you can

The best advice I've had was when I started teaching pupils with special needs. Sometimes I would become disillusioned by the slow progress they seemed to be making and voiced my concerns to a more experienced teacher whom I respected. "You need to be more realistic," he told me. "You can't expect all of the kids to succeed with everything you ask them to do. You need to employ the approach Brian Clough used when he was manager of Nottingham Forest: 'Play for percentages, young man. Play for percentages'."

Tim Parkes, Birmingham

Six of the best

Pearls of wisdom offered to me include:

* There's no such word as "can't".

* If you can't read, the world is a closed book.

* Children pass through your hands just once.

* Let children sit where they like for their first lesson.

* Smile twice a day - when children arrive and when they leave.

* If you want a lifetime in teaching, don't jump on every bandwagon.

Ruth Bamford, email

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today