Should teachers be knitting for maths?

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
Next year holds the promise of bringing back the good things about the job we have lost sight of, says Ian Smith

iving me a vote of thanks at a secondary school recently, a male teacher said: "Today we have had the chance to talk about the job we all . . .

love." He hesitated before he used that four-letter word.

During a two-day course entitled "Joyning Up the Learning", a primary teacher asked if she could take the DVD case study home. The next day, she said she had been in tears watching it as it reminded her of the job she loved and feels she can no longer do because of the pressures of assessment and content coverage.

Then there is the experienced maths teacher I came across recently who clearly loves her job. She talked about an idea she had to teach boys knitting because she said there is so much maths in knitting and so many boys in her classes are turned off maths; knitting is "coming in again", she said. Several boys had expressed an interest and she thought she could have set up a club after school.

There is no time in the maths curriculum for knitting, of course. She said she has a new headteacher - "a nice bloke, but obsessed with targets". She believes targets are important, but "how can I set and monitor targets meaningfully in my classes of 32 pupils, let alone get them to take ownership of them? I am buzzing around the classroom like the proverbial fly."

Perhaps the "love" word is a step too far for many. It doesn't figure in the list of words I have been compiling for more than two years now in workshops on motivation with thousands of teachers. I set them three tasks in groups: to think of the most motivating and the most demotivating people they have ever met in their lives. Then they think of their ideal boss.

I ask them to generate words to describe these people, then pick their top five. We collate them into a joint list which I later add to my ongoing list. There is an amazing consistency in what teachers come up with. The words "passionate" and "inspiring" come up regularly but don't figure in my top 10. Words that do are: "enthusiastic", "encouraging", "approachable", "gives you direction", "high expectations", "humorous", "believes in you", "respects you", "values you".

In workshops, I point out that pupils want the same things from a teacher and we go on to discuss the implications for what goes on in classrooms.

Here let's talk about the implications for those who support teachers at school, authority and national level.

We can hardly expect all teachers to love their job or to be passionate or inspiring. But we surely hope they will be enthusiastic and encouraging. We also want lessons to be "challenging", quite rightly one of the inspectorate's favourite words. But, although worthwhile learning is hard and involves struggling to understand and making mistakes, we also hope lessons will be enjoyable and, on occasions at least, even fun.

We certainly want teachers to believe in young people, respect and value them. Indeed, this is likely to be given much greater emphasis in future school inspections. The HMIE document Improving Scottish Education has values and the involvement of young people, including the promotion of well-being and respect, as one of its 10 dimensions of an excellent school.

Notice on their list teachers talk about "gives you direction".

This is a phrase I made up to cover a range of positive words that come up regularly on teachers' lists, namely "vision", "goals", "purpose". It also includes words to avoid such as "controlling", "overcritical", "bullying", "judgmental". Recently, a group of newly qualified teachers came up with the phrase "democratic leadership", which I think sums it up very nicely.

This also features strongly in the HMIE document. According to it, an excellent school "values and empowers its staff" and "develops a common vision among children and young people, parents and staff".

All three teachers I talked about above should also be heartened by the words of Chris McIlroy (TESS, December 2), who is not only a leading member of the inspectorate but one of its most respected. Mr McIlroy sees the curriculum for excellence as "giving teachers more space to bring back the good things we have slightly lost sight of".

He acknowledged that 5-14 had created "unrealistic expectations about assessment" and that "asking people to do things that can't be done makes them feel inadequate and anxious".

Let me leave the last word to Andy Hargreaves in his book Rethinking Educational Change: "Teaching is a kind of emotional labour - a labour of love.

"But to say this is not a kind of romantic, soppy self-indulgence. It may be a labour of love but it is labour all the same. It is hard work. And if the conditions are not right to support that work, there can be devastating consequences for the people who do it."

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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