You will never know how much impact you have on the learners in your classroom or institution. The teaching profession like others moves at a great pace. A year goes past in a blink of an eye as does the next one. I have been a teacher and leader in London, Bristol and am now in Cardiff. I remember my previous classes and colleagues as if it were yesterday and yet so much time has passed. I have experienced the amazingly good and the woefully bad. The highs of great learning experiences and the lows of where I and others have got things so so wrong.
I remember the first time I really reflected on what inequality meant among the learners I taught. I had been teaching in one of the largest schools in London with a diverse intake. Looking back, I can't believe that it took me over three years to think about my learners in this way. I was a fortunate one. Fortunate in the sense that I had been promoted to a pastoral position early in my career which forced me to encounter and reflect on the wider life experiences of the learners in my care. As a teacher I was incredibly and dangerously naive to this.
Three stories: From naivety to more naivety and back
As an new teacher I remember completely 'losing it' with a learner in year eight who wouldn't sit where I had asked him to. I raised my voice (which from my limited experienced had work previously) only for him to raise his voice even louder. A shouting match had erupted. It was only when one of the learners close to me tugged at my arm and said 'he's got anger management problems' that I stopped. It was my first lesson with this class. It was my first lesson with this learner. I remember leaving the class slightly guilty but mainly thinking - 'how on earth can I be expected to teach someone like that?'. In the same week, I remember seeing the same learner outside his Head of Year's office. 'Typical', obviously a problematic learner for many a member of staff (and he was). But no. It wasn't typical at all. I was in earshot of what was being said. His Head of Year had a bag of stationary, a tie and a shirt. She was giving it to him because it had come to her attention, that his family didn't have the resources to purchase the most basic of items. I noticed how calm, polite and thankful he was. I noticed how she spoke to him like she cared.
You would think I would learn from this and I guess I did a little. Funnily enough, I got on with this learner very well after my first lesson - I never shouted at him again. But it didn't provide the mindset change that I needed.
I was always a 'highly rated' teacher. I had impressed at interview and was relatively good at knowing how to interact with people. So, many of my lessons went rather well. I am fond of many great learning experiences, but too many of them were down to chance and not design. This also goes for the lessons that didn't go so well. I honestly think that I can pin down all of my 'bad' lessons to uninformed design. Here's an example.
It's the start of my second year in teaching and like many others, I am frantically putting together seating plans during staff inset. Together with another teacher we had proudly stayed behind to work on getting ourselves organised and ready for the week ahead. I do always like to be prepared. So there I was penning in the seating plan (it was 2008 and I was just getting to grips with PowerPoint!) looking at the names, their gender, and their CAT (Cognitive Ability Test) scores. Pretty solid information. I worked on the basis that if I mix up boys and girls and abilities then I'm going to have a reasonable chance that they will listen to me (this was my year 2 teacher mindset). Sounds logical right?
I had come towards the end of planning a particular class when I encountered a problem. I had twenty five learners in the class. Not twenty four or twenty six; twenty five. In my previous year I had experimented with grouped tables and was given feedback to use rows as it would give me more control. So the problem was, who should sit on their own? Easy! My cognitive biases were working a treat. I had already ensured that all learners were planned for except one. The one I should have planned for first. He was the learner who had to sit on his own. Not only did he have to sit on his own, he had to sit on the back row with no one else besides him. I had a standard four desk by four desk formation that could accommodate a class of thirty two and he was at the back. I might as well as have asked him to sit outside. I remember calling them in, asking them to sit in their places (this wasn't always standard practice at the time - hence I was a hit with senior management). Guess what, he was at the back of the queue - I promise, I am not making this up. We looked at each other, he saw his name of the seating plan, his head dropped and in he went. No words, just an acknowledgment that I had done what he expected me to do. I had given the learner with the most significant barriers a few more to get over.
Things I know now that I wish I knew then... (Part 1):
I wish I planned my teaching for learners with the most barriers first
I wish I got to know what a 'barrier' looked like for a learner in my classroom
I wish I loved the learners who needed it the most
The journey continues in Part 2 - where I will give the context of the first picture as well as look at how our choice architecture can shape our values and culture! Stay tuned...
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