Sharp young blades

10th January 1997 at 00:00
John MacBeath says that new teachers can revitalise jaded old hands.

In the next decade we are going to hear a lot more about the learning school and the learning society - the school in which everyone learns and the society in which we all see ourselves as lifetime learners. From the traditional view of schools as places where teachers teach and children learn we will move to an awareness that as the shelf-life of school knowledge decreases the education of teachers will become a full-time lifelong occupation.

In terms of what we know about learning we are, as the American writer Tom Peters put it, "hardly out of our diapers". Most of what we know about the workings of the human brain has been discovered in the past 20 years or so. By the year 2010 the technology of learning will be in a form that is literally unthinkable today. It is also inevitable that less and less of what is learned will be learned in the classroom, and that teaching will have to understand and build on what happens outside schools.

While, there is an explosion in knowledge and in the science of learning, there is also a misty-eyed nostalgia about the good old days of teaching. If schools were once better places, they were only better places for the minority. Schools in this country, for as long as they have been in existence, have failed a majority of young people.

What is not in dispute is that teaching has become a much more demanding task. This is because we know more about learning and are more sceptical about the relationship between learning and teaching, and because society is increasingly willing to let teachers carry the responsibility for the problems it has created.

Much is currently being written about the "intensification" of teaching. Teachers are under more pressure than ever to adapt on a continuing basis to what has become the curriculum of permanent change. More energy is required simply to keep up with the day-to-day work of the classroom, leaving less time to read, to keep abreast of developments, to observe children learning, to record, to reflect and to evaluate the quality of teaching. Yet these things are absolutely vital.

Stephen Covey uses the metaphor of the man sawing a tree, becoming less and less effective the more he saws. When asked if he has thought of sharpening the saw he says no because he is too busy sawing. Sharpening the saw is one of the first rules of teaching but the one that is most frequently observed in the breach.

As student teachers or new teachers, you enjoy a unique privilege in this respect. You are likely to be the most significant sources of renewal in a school - more potent than inspectors, advisers or outside consultants.

There are good reasons for this. You are likely to be closest to the leading-edge of good practice because you have had time for reflection - because to be a good teacher is what drives you. You come with no hidden agenda. You are not there to criticise or to convert you colleagues. You are not there to show off or to model the latest designer curriculum.

None the less, you do, however unconsciously, model good teaching, positive attitudes and relationships from which experienced teachers can learn. At least that is what they very frequently say. It is the most commonly heard refrain of headteachers: "If only I had more of them this school would be a different place."

There are ten commandments for new teachers. Here are the first five. The next five you will have to make up yourself. But give yourself a year or two to get them all the way you want them.

Read Start with Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence. It confirms much of what good teachers know intuitively, but it also challenges some conventional wisdom and carries a health warning against lazy teaching and uninformed politicking.

Go on learning When you stop learning, it will be time to get out of teaching because you will be damaging your colleagues and your pupils. Look around and be warned. The staff-room cynics can poison young teachers and drag down a whole school. They are frightened of the light and threatened by the enthusiasm they themselves have lost.

Stay positive Be careful in your choice of language. It is a significant indicator of how people are thinking and labels are the most potent device known to undermine children's confidence and ability.

The brain registers words like "lazy", "stupid", "disobedient" and builds neural networks which gradually and inexorably consolidate into laziness, stupidity and disobedience. It is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. But it works in a positive direction, too. Pupils become clever, hard-working and obedient by the same process. It is an alarming finding that in many schools criticism and put-down outnumbered praise and reward by a ratio of four to one. But this can be turned on its head. The ideal ratio, we are told, is exactly the opposite.

Ask for feedback The single best source of evidence on how you are doing is your pupils. If you ask them, they will give you honest, mainly generous and very helpful comment. They will appreciate being asked and respond accordingly. There are simple ways of doing this. For example a short, one-minute questionnaire at the end of a lesson or at the end of a week. With very young children Circle Time, when children are invited to speak freely, has been shown to be effective and revealing.

Ask for help New teachers are often afraid to ask for help, based on the misconception that it will appear as a weakness. In fact it is more likely to increase the respect of other staff. Teachers like giving advice, and remember being there themselves.

Advice should, however, always be tested against alternatives and what is the best fit for you. Advice is likely to be most useful if the sources are carefully chosen - those teachers who, through their language and behaviour, evidence a respect for children, for learning and for their colleagues who are, in short, truly professional.

John MacBeath is director of the centre for research and consultancy at the University of Strathclyde faculty of education.

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