No prizes for a fast finish

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh relishes proof that teaching from the heart matters more than winning by a nose

Inspiring Primary Teaching: Insights into excellent primary practice. By Denis Hayes. Learning Matters pound;12

As external examiner to a university teacher education course, I visited schools where there was doubt about the performance of students on placement. One visit in particular sticks in my mind.

"He's not a bad teacher," said the head. "But there's no evidence that his pupils are learning very much." I knew what he meant. The student was a performer rather than a teacher: what I'd call a "classroom jockey", driving the class along like Frankie Dettori chasing yet another winner's bonus.

We've all seen it. The teacher bounces in, writes the lesson objectives on the board and strides around keeping up a stream of instructions and questions at a rate that's bewildering rather than instructive. The sad thing is that many new teachers have actively aimed for that "no prisoners" style, such has been the emphasis on "pace and rigour" from the primary strategies and the inspectorate. Dr Denis Hayes writes here: "Trainees are said to be meeting the standard if they are seen to be teaching assertively, maintaining a brisk pace to their lessons, setting and maintaining high expectations, using their voice effectively, using praise and encouragement, asking carefully formulated questions and intervening in a timely way to maintain or refocus pupils on task."

He rightly questions some of this. "'Assertive teaching' sometimes fails to take sufficient account of sensitive pupils' needs because they become alarmed by the adult's forceful manner. 'High expectations' assume that the teacher is always the final arbiter of acceptable achievement."

In sheer practical terms, too much emphasis on pace, and getting through the planned work in the time available, risks leaving some children behind. Tim Coulson, who leads the national numeracy strategy, told me last term (TES Get Smart supplement, June 9, 2006), "In the attempt to inject momentum and pace into maths teaching, we've slightly overdone it. Children need space to digest, to understand, and teachers need to give time in the lesson for that."

Now, as Coulson's statement indicates, the message is getting through. The drive for greater creativity, and the emphasis on critical thinking skills, Dr Hayes points out, reinforce the value of flexible and responsive teaching, and his book guides teachers in that direction.

Dr Hayes believes that good teaching - inspirational teaching - involves the emotions, and that wise heads and teachers have always known that, and can judge quite quickly whether a new teacher has the right inner qualities to make the grade.

"Experienced practitioners are sometimes heard to say something to the effect, 'I would employ this student tomorrow given half a chance!' On the other hand, if the placement is not going smoothly, 'I had my doubts about this one from the start'."

This is partly, of course, to do with personal attributes. As Dr Hayes says: "The people who write references [for student teachers] tend to extol their personal suitability for teaching as much as their academic prowess." What these referees know is that "effectiveness as a teacher resides as much in the heart as in the head".

Coaching new teachers in flexibility, sensitivity, responsiveness and emotional engagement, though, is considerably more difficult than ticking off a set of performance boxes. As head of a school which took many student teachers on placement I felt that keenly, even in the days before the strategies.

I sat with a student once, at the back of a quietly inspirational teacher's class. My colleague's children were in the palm of his hand, captured by his quiet kindness and his earnest, always interested gaze. I was awestruck, and as a typically loud, piano-playing, brass-larynxed primary head, painfully envious. It occurred to me, though, that the student, misled by the low-key appearance of it all, might not be able to perceive the quality of what was going on. I leaned towards her.

"It's not as easy as he makes it look, you know," I whispered. How futile, as a piece of professional advice, was that? What student teachers and new teachers need is some genuine guidance about what it really means to teach from the heart, engaging children so that they want to learn. There are practical things to say about that, given, and Dr Hayes sets out here to provide them. In my judgment he does it well and with real understanding. His book is primarily aimed at the teacher education community, but I'd say that there's no one working in or around a school, at any level, who won't learn from its wisdom and insight. There are chapters on classroom management and behaviour, on speaking to pupils and listening to them ("Listening has to be learned and practised because most people prefer to talk rather than to hear what others have to say") and a detailed one on effective questioning, one of the key skills of the classroom.

"Questions are an important teaching tool but should be treated more like grains of pepper to add 'bite' to a meal than lashings of gravy to saturate it."

The book's presentation is varied and attractive, with bullet points, key questions, realistic case studies, boxes for "reflect and respond" and for "what the experts say". All the time, Dr Hayes is encouraging to the reader, aware of the sense of pride and privilege that goes with being a mentor of young people, and mindful of the emotional relationship between teacher and pupil. The learning, he reminds us, goes both ways. In a postscript chapter called The Eternal Teacher, he quotes Professor M.V.C. Jeffreys, himself for many years an inspiration to student teachers at Birmingham University, writing in 1971.

"Teaching is never all-giving and learning all-receiving... The teaching-learning relation is one in which both partners are being changed. And the more alive and effective the relation, the more will be given and received on both sides."

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