‘Sink or swim’ training doesn’t float my boat

6th May 2016 at 00:00

“When the inspector comes, we’ll all put our hands up for you, Miss. And if we know the answer, we’ll have one finger pointing to the ceiling.”

This was the experience of one trainee teacher who found herself in a Quaker girls’ boarding school for her first placement. “But what,” she asked herself, “if no one knows the answer?”

This reminded me of my experience in my placement school, moons ago. On my orientation day, a croaky geography teacher asked if I could cover her lesson. I was too new to say no, and jazz-handed my way through 50 minutes of painful exposition about volcanoes, a subject on which I am unlikely to wheelbarrow any awards home.

The children faced the right way and tasks transitioned briskly and quietly. My pharyngitic mentor/tormentor confessed to me at the end of the lesson that she had simply wanted me to come in and hand out the worksheets. But then, when it seemed to be going undisastrously, she thought she’d see how I’d get on. I might have thanked her, if I hadn’t just experienced what felt like a 50-minute coronary. I returned to my in-school mentor yelping like I’d been sold into slavery.

Further back in my training, it had been even worse. In my observation-school week – a period designed to establish if teaching hates you and/or you hate teaching – I watched a Year 9 lesson on the story of the Ark. As I dreamed in and out of focus, the teacher pounced, asking me to lead the class. Five minutes felt like 50, but luckily, I fell back on the old A-level standby: “What do the pupils think about X?” They might not have learned much but, by God, the minutes were burned gamely.

It’s easy to draw a line between these two data points and wonder whether we don’t sometimes approach in-school training in a rather haphazard way. I’ve certainly seen this a lot over the years. One thing I’ve noticed is that we fret and slap our heads about the best way to teach children, but frequently tip those ambitions into the ocean when it comes to adult education – especially in teacher training.

I remember the agonising irony of sitting through a lesson on how group work was the best way to teach, which was itself a 60-minute lecture from slides.

I’ve sat through CPD that involved sugar paper and lots of turning to the person next to you and precious little else. I’ve shivered in horror as Dale’s Learning Cone was trotted out by consultant after grisly consultant as though it were the tablets of Moses, instead of an unsubstantiated piece of graphic legerdemain, which it is.

And, of course, I’ve been thrown into the deep end more thoroughly than a Mafia satirist. In what other industry or profession would we permit such recklessness? “Sink or swim!” say the people in the dinghy. It’s striking how we don’t permit this attitude for trainee airline pilots or encourage cardiac surgeons to “have a go”.

Happily, there are great mentors everywhere, and plenty of people who know exactly what to do to coax out the teacher within. But think of how many more would stay in the profession if they knew how to handle behaviour? To organise their workload? To run better bureaucracies? If the people surrounding them could confidently say, “I’ve taught you all that I know”? Now that would be a revolution.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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