Your turn to dish out the stars

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Walk tall, look them in the eye and carry an air of conviction: John Fines presents his 10-session course on the qualities needed to get the best out of pupils throughout your teaching career.

During the 30-odd years when I was a teacher trainer I gave little thought for planning. There, as in all phases of education, I believed in trying to do this day a good job with the inheritance of yesterday - to catch the moment, sometimes even the right moment.

But there was one little dream I used to have that might count as planning. It was a silly notion, but I thought that one day I might be offered a lot of money to set up a new, better kind of teacher training college and I would found the College of Three.

Three staff, that is, for one of the things that strikes you all the time in teacher training is the vast array of redundant staff.

One of my staff would be a comedian - my preference at that time was Eric Morecambe for although I naturally wanted my students to be able to make children laugh, I felt that he could also teach projection, posture and, above all, timing. Poor man, he would have had to work very hard indeed.

The second member of staff would be a salesman I knew who although often tired was never short of energy because he was powered by an invincible spirit of hope. He had a lot of messages to give.

Finally, of course, there would be me. I can do lots of things in teaching moderately well, but my best quality is listening. I have a good listening face and I am honourable in my listening - I pay attention. So I would teach the students how to listen, to children, of course, almost never to adults or authorities (except us three, sometimes).

You will not be surprised to learn that the College of Three remained a dream, but it does in many ways permeate the planning set out below. I have been asked to provide a 10-session course for teachers in training (although I know a number of experienced teachers who might also find it useful).

The entry qualifications are fairly simple: optimism, charity and a sense of humour. I am assuming these days that the students will have a degree, but I regard this as more of a burden than an advantage. However, Pilgrim, we can still travel.

Session one

Stepping on stage and assuming the mask

Becoming a teacher requires a massive personality change, or rather the capacity to assume another personality. Sincerity will get you nowhere unless you have a passionate desire to rival Saint Sebastian. Such cynicism, so early. What a shock! But to be more down to earth we must learn a different code of behaviour to be a teacher.

The traditional shaping of an Englishman is aimed at restraint, quietness, self deprecation and avoidance of contact (not least of the eyes). I know things have changed recently, but not that much, so we must learn to assume the character of a teacher who walks tall, looks people in the eyes and carries an air of conviction and purpose. He or she must speak clearly and directly, not necessarily loudly, but must have a voice that is loud enough when necessary for playgrounds and halls.

But this is not a total shuffling off of the old character and the assumption of a new and seemingly false one. Teachers in one sense offer themselves as the ultimate reward. Children love to find out details about their teachers, to discover aspects of their life before and outside school, and an appropriate revealing of this from time to time can be wonderfully helpful in a developing relationship. Of all the stories I tell children the ones I tell about myself hold the strongest attention.

So part of the trainee teacher's job is to learn (and assume) the mask, but also to examine themselves and find out who they are and what they have to offer to the hungry hoards.

Session two

Communication - listening, talking, face, hands and body

Talking in public is one of those skills that seems to go against our own training and socialisation. We are bred to be quiet and undemonstrative, to suspect and dislike the noisy and arrogant people who invade our space. We are also not well trained in listening - we perhaps have had enough politeness drummed into us to wait till the other person has finished speaking before we leap in with our five pennyworth, but that is what it often is - we are waiting our turn, not really listening.

We need to listen to children to find out where they are, and they are often not just a long way behind where we hoped they might be, but also in some place completely different. If we don't listen and just blind on regardless then we need not be surprised to discover that very shortly we have lost nearly everybody. This feedback is important, but listening also feeds out signals, it tells the children you are concerned with them and what concerns them. It tells them you will be patient and willing to go at a suitable pace for them to learn. It gives them a chance to establish their role in the learning partnership.

To listen properly you need to give a child your whole face and to signal that you are really taking things in rather than just saying 'ah ha' while in the back of your mind you are writing a shopping list. Your eyes, your face, your body all have a part to play, just as when you yourself are communicating.

You must learn to talk - most teacher trainees go down with bad throats after a week in school. They haven't learned to talk in classrooms using the soft yet clear and confident voice that will not strain the speaker nor challenge the listeners to have a fight. So this session practice listening and talking - believe me you will need to work as hard on this one as on any two other sessions.

Session three

Knowing what you know and how to find out more

Most teacher trainees would be shocked to find themselves classed as "learned". Their higher education has more probably convinced them that they are unutterably dull and stupid. Yet in truth they are a highly select group in terms of a comprehensive population (the one they will be teaching) and they do know a lot. Their problem is accessing their knowledge - pulling it out in a useful format, making it available first to themselves and then to their pupils. This needs practice - quite a lot of practice in fact, but it is worth the effort, otherwise all that knowledge will just fester, unused and increasingly unusable.

A second aspect under this heading is what the trainee teacher knows about finding out. Their higher education should have trained them into being highly efficient researchers. But even if this has not been formally done on their courses, students will have learned in the very process of doing their work some techniques of finding out. These must be rescued and practised at this stage in order to put them at the service of the intending teacher. Of course, a good teacher spends much of their time teaching children how to find out, but the same teacher, to be effective, must continually search for new knowledge, fresh experiences, different resources to fund the classroom. So, once more, practise finding out.

Session four

Selection, simplification, clarification, explanation

Of course, knowledge alone is going to get you nowhere. Just telling children undifferentiated information will not help them. Some information is of course important - you need to know that England travels on the left, for example, but even that is no use until you have learned in practice your left from your right and can use this knowledge readily. Thus the teacher's job is to select the key material, to render it comprehensible to young minds and get them to a position to start using knowledge.

This last is a key point - often teachers can learn quite quickly to select and to simplify, but when it comes to explaining to children what they want them to do with the information, they fall flat.

Often enough that is because they have not thought it through themselves. So this session practise processing materials for children and explaining what to do with it.

Session five

Praise and blame

When I watch teachers I hear lots of blame and little praise.

Understandable in a busy, taxing profession, but it is counterproductive. If blame is frequent it will be ignored in the end and if only a few children get praise, and that infrequently, then it is not worth struggling to succeed.

Consider what you think is important to blame in your classroom. I blame not listening (especially to each other) because that is important to my style of teaching. I would blame hurting if I found it happening. If I did find lying or cheating or not trying I should want to know why rather than be anxious to blame. So, make your list.

Praise is vital, it is what makes good classroom work. I use buckets of it. The value of praise is threefold: it makes the receiver happy and it makes for a happy atmosphere, but above all it provides a model of success. Most of the time children have little clue about what you want from them; but when you say "My, my, you are doing very well today, let me read your answer to the whole class" then the listeners say in their minds "so that's what he wants from us. I will try to give him some and then maybe he will pat my head too". It is simple, it works, and it leads to happiness. But at first it is hard to practise - we are too emotionally tightfisted to say "well done" in a noisy, open fashion. So, go on and practise - what will you say, how will you say it? "Have a star, sunshine" or what?

Session six

Writing on the board and display

When I was a teacher trainee I despised the whole process, I fear, but the class I cut completely was one on blackboard writing and display. If I could whistle myself back in time that would be the only class I would attend every session. Writing on the board is necessary all day and every day, and if your presentation is sloppy and careless how can you criticise a child's?

You need to get titles up, you need to establish vocabularies, you need to keep notes in a discussion so that children's contributions are not lost. You need to draw diagrams and sketches, and if you are me you are severely handicapped. Similarly you will need to display your own materials and children's work effectively in the classroom and the simple pointers you learn in this session will save you a lifetime's agony. Why, in the middle of a superb session on reading a picture does my Blu-Tack come unstuck and the picture fall to the floor to wild giggles all round? I never took this session, you see.

Session seven

Designing lessons, keeping records

No, this is not a session about keeping a teaching practice notebook with objectives underlined twice in red, nor is it about writing a neat 55 in the right column of your mark book. Planning and assessment can sound so tedious that you switch off straight away, whereas in fact in this session you should do your hardest thinking of the course.

First of all, in lesson design let us remind ourselves that it is not a record of what I the teacher intend to do, but of what the children are going to do, and above all why? Every lesson should have a real purpose, even if it is "it is Friday and we are all tired and we are going to play together". Other good purposes are "They need to finish off a lot of things and I need a bit of a rest". "We do the same as last time, but in a different way because I don't think they really got it then."

The best lessons, I find, are lessons where I am helping to use knowledge they already have in a practical way with a result that they know what they know and understand it. A quick example: recently I had a class of children who had been to the Mary Rose at Portsmouth and now "knew" a lot about it. So I gave them the chance to take on roles as experts: divers, archaeologists, historians, fund raisers, museum experts etc. Then I introduced an imaginary character who came from a very poor country where, by chance, they had a 16th century ship sunk in one of their ports. Should they go ahead and raise it?

The experts consulted and began to give their advice, but some disagreed. Without lots of money it can't be done. If the ship breaks up when you a raising it, all will be lost. If you get it, tourism will double, etc, etc. By the end of that exciting lesson the children really were experts and had some genuine interior understanding of the knowledge they had, but which might otherwise have slipped away.

Second, think how you are going to find out whether your children are successful in their learning. Those Mary Rose children were, they could show me and tell me. In other lessons I might need to look more deeply. Consider how you are going to find out how well your children are doing, and how you are going to record it so that it doesn't slip away out of your mind.

Session eight

The structure of schools and the law and the teacher

A bit boring, this one, but vital to success. Some trainee teachers enter schools thinking that the head and the deputies are the important people. Clever ones know that a quick word each day with the secretaries and the care-taking staff will ensure a happy life - these are the important people. Find out about governors, and how school policies are devised.

Check what the Government says you must and you mustn't do. Consider your own position and safety. You may feel that you are the world's answer to children's problems and in wanting to help them step in deep waters. An interview without witnesses is not always bad but sometimes can lead to bad results. Not reporting clear breaches of school rules may make you feel you are on the children's side, but the senior staff will not be happy. Look it all up, make some lists of dos and don'ts - not many, just the vital ones.

Session nine Recognising problems You are not the school's medical officer, clearly, and as soon as you see a problem do your best to pass it on. But a teacher is a vital mesh in a very faulty system which children fall through every day.

A 13-year-old falls into a fit of sobbing in your class for no apparent reason. What to do? What might it be? Is it your business? Could you help anyway? How?

A 10-year-old is falling to sleep regularly in class. Ask yourself the same questions. What might those spots be? Why is Jemima always at the sick room? Those are strange bruises, Alec. Yes, she smells, what am I supposed to do about it?

Read it up, get some advice, don't wait for problems to happen and then go check the literature.

Session ten

Managing time and energy

Sometimes as a young teacher I found myself yearning for a carer who could organise me. I would set vast amounts of work and then have tons of marking. I would make huge promises to classes ("I will take you all to a dig") and when the promises fell due I realised how much I would have to pay. I would be awake half the night worrying about why I seemed to get across Peter Haigh so badly.

So in this session make some plans that can help you with time and energy. First, assure yourself time off, recreation and relaxation (not least, enough sleep). Second, look at the loads you create for yourself (especially in marking) and work out a system to manage that. Try not to scowl and groan and worry. Have fun, even if you have to write it into a timetable.

Now go to school and practise. Check how well you are doing. Keep a little diary in which you allow yourself to confess the bad bits but only if you can match them with good bits. Don't forget how important you are, how important your job is and how important it is for you to succeed and enjoy your success.

John Fines is visiting professor of education at the University of Exeter

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