The Unnatural Teacher 

There are people who say they knew from a very early age that they wanted to be a teacher. My sister in law, for example, used to play at being a teacher whilst at home. Now, she’s a successful primary teacher. I had no such youthful aspirations. I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do until after I’d left university and realised I wanted to make something worthwhile of the knowledge I’d gleaned from my degree. I was a parent’s frustration – a career adviser’s nightmare. Likewise, some teachers are often described in the early days of their careers as being a “natural in the classroom.”

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Just as I didn’t feel a natural calling to the profession, neither do I think would I have been described as a natural in my formative years as a classroom practitioner. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact I don’t inhabit my body well and have fairly random limbs; I have had to mentally rehearse explanations and questions; I have had to carefully craft classroom sequences. Perhaps (you might argue I’m jealous) this is why I have questions about the whole concept of the natural teacher. I am an unnatural teacher. Why would I be content with anyone else being described as a natural in the classroom?

It seems more than a little churlish though to dismiss the possibility out of hand. Wouldn’t it be great (despite also being a likely plot for a piece of dystopian fiction) if school leaders could naturally select preformed awesome teachers.

Is there really such a thing as a “natural” teacher or are people described as such just likeable, empathetic, responsive and/or authoritative people? Nick Rose does a great job of explaining the research on this here and here. In short, he tells us that:

  • This report from Rockoff et al identifies “the correlations between teacher characteristics and student outcomes are typically very small or non-existent.”
  1. Teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
  2. Quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment
  • Sadler et al’s study from 2013 on science teaching finds that subject knowledge alone is not sufficient. In addition teachers need to be able to identify and address students’ misconceptions.
  • According to some psychologists, Theory of Mind (the ability to infer how others think or feel) plays an important role in the initial level of our ability to teach. Rose highlights this 2002 report from Strauss, Ziv and Stein which, he says, points out that “the ability to teach arises spontaneously at an early age without any apparent instruction and that it is common to all human cultures as evidence that it is an innate ability.” He then lists the following as teaching attributes displayed by five year olds when attempting to help younger children to play a board game:
  1. Demonstration
  2. Explanation
  3. Demonstration mixed with explanation
  4. Specific direction or instruction
  5. Question used to check for understanding
  6. Responsiveness to actions from the learner
  7. Narration of own teaching decisions (“Now I’m going to tell you…”)

At the end of his blog, based on the fact that these skills are displayed by five year olds when teaching other children how to play a board game, Rose poses the question, “What is the ‘technical’ or ‘professional’ body of knowledge or set of skills required of an effective teacher, which can actually be taught?” Given that many of these things are achievable by five year olds, where do we go beyond this?

Nick’s premise is that many five year olds could have a go at doing these things. Many five year olds “could” cut someone open if you gave them a scalpel. Cutting someone open, doesn’t make you a surgeon. Having a natural propensity to direct another child how to play a board game doesn’t lead you, necessarily into being an effective classroom practitioner. What matters, in my mind, is not that we can do these things to different degrees of success from the age of five or four or three, but the extent to which we can develop teachers’ levels of impact when they do each of these things.

In this post, Michael Fordham makes a case for the argument that skills cannot be taught, instead advocating the point of view that what we perceive to be the teaching of skills is essentially the building of someone’s knowledge. That is to say that we can teach someone to ‘know-that’, “If they do x, then y happens/doesn’t happen” or that we can teach them to ‘know-how’ “doing A affects/doesn’t affect B.” I think there are important messages here for how we educate teachers in the knowledge relating to teaching.

Many of the seven elements of teaching which Rose lists above, as well as the many other elements of teaching which he doesn’t list can be broken down into procedures with related ‘know-thats’ and ‘know-hows.’ In addition, each of these procedures can be refined, practiced and honed with teacher educators providing further knowledge at the point of practice. We can unpick and learn more about what happens if we deliver an explanation in a certain way, we can look at how, when we demonstrate x in a certain way, it affects y so that, though we can’t achieve a dystopian sense of perfection, we can become better teachers. We do not have to be stuck as unnatural teachers if we are supported to become more knowledgeable.

In order for this to happen more effectively, there are certain things which I think schools and those involved in ITE could do better, if we are to make the  process more effective.

Behaviour

If teachers in their early days are to flourish, they need an environment in which they can learn to teach rather than learn to crowd control. This, I think, means they need to train in schools which have a clear and reliable system for dealing with behavior issues – all teachers need this. Novice teachers particularly need this so that they know what is possible for students of all levels of prior attainment. Imagine trying to learn to drive towards the Magic Roundabout in Swindon for the first time whilst your instructor were shouting at you, prodding you and lobbing food around the car. You’d stop and get out to maintain your sanity. You wouldn’t do it. We owe it to our students and the novice teachers who are learning to teach them to maintain an effective system of behavior in schools.

Content, pacing, interleaving and coaching

Harry Fletcher Wood identifies here that, just like the students in our classrooms, teachers in their early days forget content from their programmes. Having read this, I was left wondering why we rush them through so much so quickly. In the first instance, I think we need to consider whether there is content that could be stripped out of the ITE curriculum. In the second, I think there is a job to do, if we are serious about educating our least experienced teachers, in pacing the programme out over a longer period of time so that there is time for interleaving the content as well as space for more deliberate practice of isolated procedures which teachers use frequently. In this way, there would be more opportunities for coaches to build on the ‘know-that’ and know-how’ knowledge that our novice teachers possess and process.

Judgement

The model we use for assessing the teachers we’re educating goes hand in hand with the content of the ITE curriculum. Hundreds of schools have now moved away from isolated lesson observations now, yet many if not most still do so with their novice teachers. If we have to judge whether they can do a hundred and one different things from the very beginning of the year it encourages a rushed approach to educating them. It’s possible, in this model to rush to assume that a novice has something pinned down when, in fact, there are gaps in their skills. My preference would be a model closer to that offered in Getting Better Faster by Paul Bambick Santoyo. In the book, he outlines in fine detail the elements of teaching which you’d expect a teacher to have grasped in their first three months. There is a great deal in there, but it also holds back a lot of content which many of our current models of ITE assessment use as it acknowledges that they are having to get a full grip on these early principles rather than rush on. It’s also far more developmental as each element is linked to a practice and coaching sequence to support teachers in their early days to build these elements over the first few months.

Subject curriculum and assessment

One of the biggest errors we make is expecting too many of those learning to teach and less experienced teachers to plan longer sequences of learning too soon. I think there are two main reasons we do this. The first is that, in many cases, nationally, we recognise teachers as novices for two years – the ITE year and the NQT year. This means that we “have” to train them in curriculum and assessment design at some point in this process and we have to squeeze it in amongst lots of other elements. This means we do it (at least in my experience) too quickly and therefore pretty badly. The second reason we do it is because, in some schools, less experienced teachers make up a high proportion of the teaching staffing so we need them to take on curriculum planning earlier than we might ideally wish. Time spent taking on the nitty gritty of planning a longer sequence of learning, is time that less experienced teachers can’t spend on looking at the granular work of framing questions in individual exchanges in class or working on their modeling or honing the use of the schools behavior system or embedding their routines.

Clarity of curriculum and teaching model in schools

Just as having a clear behaviour system in schools is important, so I also think it helps all teachers, particularly those in their initial years, if there is a clarity to the school’s teaching model. Ours looks like this, drawing on Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s Making Every Lesson Count, Martin Robinson’s model of the Trivium and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion:

Codification Document

Without a model like this, those learning to be teachers (especially unnatural ones like I was) can find it difficult to make the connection between their education programmes and the reality of the classroom – the world of the school can seem a very fuzzy place and, I think, trainees need clarity rather than fuzziness.

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