Dear Ted

18th November 2005 at 00:00
The sudden death of Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, has robbed teachers of a wise counsellor and passionate enthusiast. After a lifetime of giving advice to trainees, he agreed three and a half years ago to be Friday magazine's agony uncle. This is the last column he wrote, amusing and enlightening as ever. Turn to pages 6 and 7 for more gems

I'm a primary PGCE student who panics when I think a child is bored, although I know you can't be on song for all of them all the time. How can I get over this - it's crippling my teaching practice?

Ted says

Oh dear. You haven't even started your career and you're already joining the ranks of the perfectionists. One day you could be a headteacher, lying awake all night clutching a bottle of vodka, because you made a tiny error the day before. If every teacher was paralysed because someone was bored, the nation's psychiatric clinics would be overflowing.

There is an interesting rhythm during a teaching practice. I have often visited student teachers who tell me they are getting worse, when I think they are becoming infinitely better. The reason is clear to any supervising tutor. When students start they have simple expectations - like survival.

Will you run out of materials? Will the class run riot? To get to the end of the day intact is a relief and a mini-triumph. Before long, however, expectations soar; every lesson has to be absolutely brilliant, an aspiration that cannot be met at this early stage.

Just do your best. When something goes wrong, accept it as normality, not only during training, but when you are a seasoned pro. Working out how to put things right, how to teach better, how to give each child a better deal, is one hell of a challenge.

Unfortunately, many schools' mission statements put huge pressure on teachers. Wanting to develop every child's full potential is a laudable aim, but I get more worried about people who are so arrogant as to think they have managed to do this, rather than the many who realise that there is still a long way to go with each child. Lighten up and have a smile.

Being self-critical is a virtue until it paralyses you. Then it becomes a self-indulgence.

You say

Other factors can affect concentration

I'm afraid this is something you are going to have to get used to. You are at the beginning of your teaching career, but those of us with a few years'

service will tell you that if we had a pound for every yawn we've witnessed - well, we would be able to retire considerably earlier.

You are right to be concerned. Your mission should be maximum learner engagement. But there is much that you cannot control in a class of 30 or so kids. What time did they get to bed last night? Did they have any sort of breakfast? Are they under the weather?

Your teaching is obviously a key variable, and you should be concerned when you note boredom (at least you're noticing it, which is half the battle), but there is no need to panic. You can only plan your lessons on the basis of certain general assumptions about your pupils. You cannot eliminate all the other variables that affect a child's capacity to remain engaged for every second of the lesson.

Perhaps it all comes down to an admission that we cannot interest all of our pupils all of the time. If this sounds defeatist, then consider the alternative: a professional lifetime of frustration as you attempt the impossible.

Roddy Pow, London

Differentiate your activities

Being aware of a child's signs of boredom is one thing; panicking is another. The former is the basis of good teaching by monitoring the learner's level of engagement; the latter is the basis of a very short career in teaching. You need to develop strategies for intervention when symptoms of boredom appear and to stop you showing signs of panic. The key to both is technique; this will allow you to sort out the pupil's boredom, and give you the confidence to prevent panic in yourself.

Work out what the source of the boredom is. Is there sufficient stimulation in what you are doing with the children? Are the bright ones being stretched? Are the slower learners being left behind? Differentiate your learning activities as much as possible. Understand what makes every member of the class tick.

You will never deliver the perfect lesson; no one does. But you can keep trying to improve. Don't beat yourself up when, despite your best efforts, you are greeted with the odd yawn.

Sheila Mazzotti, West Sussex

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