Things I know now that I wish I knew then... (Part I):
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
To read part I, click here...
April, 2011. It's Easter and one day before my birthday. I'm spending the holiday in Cardiff with family passively watching television.
BREAKING NEWS... 'A fifteen year old boy has been stabbed to death in North London by a gang of masked cyclists'. It was the reference to 'North London' which made me take notice. Unfortunately, London and knife crime whilst less frequent at the time was not uncommon. Often, I would hear items on the news where victims had been seriously injured through a stabbing with some of them suffering fatal wounds. As the bulletin went on, my anxiety levels increased. The report was honing in on the school where I had been teaching for five years. Something inside me just knew. But my school was in a busy, densely packed part of North London with many schools all within a few miles of one-another. I had a small ray of hope that perhaps it was a fifteen year old boy from another school - someone who I didn't know, didn't teach. Of course, all life is equally sacred, but I think it is a natural human reaction to hope that such things don't happen to those we know.
My ray of hope disappeared. His name was revealed. I immediately text a colleague who replied within a few minutes. They had heard of the news earlier: one of our learners had died. He died a few months before his sixteenth birthday, a few months before taking his GCSEs, a few months before the start of the rest of his life. I hadn't been teaching him that year but knew him well. I had taught him when he was in year nine and year eight. I had built a very good relationship with him over those two years. It was during this period that I was promoted to Head of House; in charge of a vertical group of two hundred learners across year seven to year thirteen. This pastoral role had opened my eyes to a number of things. Most critically, I began to understand that our learners did have lives outside of the classroom. Some with very challenging lives indeed. This had done wonders for my pedagogical practice. I was already reasonably good at relationship building, but I was very discriminate. Too quick to judge, too prejudicial. It was my pastoral role that really made me reflect on how life outside of the classroom really impacts what goes inside it.
Such was the case with a fifteen year old boy who I had taught. Who like numerous others, got caught up in things that perhaps he shouldn't have. Who had shown promise but whose needs I had barely begun to meet. A fifteen year old boy who three years earlier was waiting outside a classroom for his first lesson with me. The same boy whom I made sit on his own in the back of the classroom.
I am still haunted by how wrong I was. Yes I was naive. Of course, I would never intentionally set out to sit a learner with such obvious needs in the back of my class. At the time, I didn't think anything of it. And here lies the heart of the problem. This example I have shared has been difficult to write. But it is real. It is also an extreme, which makes the pain even more acute. I am left wondering, how many other learners have been limited by my cognitive biases? I know the answer. Many. I have played a part in many learners not realising their potential. As I reflect back on my relationships with the learners who caused me some of greatest challenges, I can't help but think I didn't meet their needs. You know the ones: no pen, even though you have given them a over twenty. No book, because it has been left at home. No engagement because... Because they don't care. And that is our job. To get them to care! And if we can't get them to care, then at the very least we should care for them, because at some point in their lives, they will start to. It might not be in the time and space when you encounter them, but your unwavering enthusiasm and steadfast guidance will stay with your learners. Sometime, a lot of the time, you don't realise the impact you have.
A different time and space
Your lessons do make a difference. A few weeks ago, I was written to by a former learner who left school in 2011. She is now working for a high profile newspaper. I was delighted, so happy that her career pathway had been so successful. She explained that she remembered my lessons with great fondness and found my teaching really engaging. She wrote that during her interview, she used one of my lessons as an example to answer a question. I was quite taken aback. One of my learners, using something I had taught her to help her get a job. Just as there have been far too many learners who have not reached their potential because of my teaching, there have also been those who have gone on to use their education to thrive. Many will not get in touch, and you will probably never see them again. But rest assured, when your teaching is great, it enables learners to progress far beyond what you could conceive.
Sometimes, you get to understand your impact soon after teaching a learner. For me, this message is so humbling. As you can imagine, I am rather sensitive to fostering nurturing relationships for all learners. All my experiences have made me into the teacher and leader I am today. What is important, is that I have tried to reflect and I have tried to grow. When anyone asks me about behaviour management or working with learners, I apply three principles that I have learned over the years which I believe are so important.
Love them: Start from the basis of love and you make sure that you love those who you find it hardest to. Those who will test your resolve, because these are the learners who not only need it the most, but will be the most grateful when the dust has settled and you are a distant memory. It is these learners for whom we should turn our speech to water when they are raging fire. It is these learners whom we should continually resource every time we see them. It is these learners who need our smiles and positive glances.
Know them: Get to understand what they like, what they dislike. What they do when they are away from the classroom; who their family is. Be interested (no intrusive) and be patient. Be genuine in wanting to know their barriers, supportive and empathetic in helping them overcome their challenges. Let them know when they have wronged you and/or others but also let them know that you are there for them every step of the way.
Teach them: Give them feedback first. Look for their names first when planning, choosing resources, thinking about how the lesson might be delivered. Provide them with the most structure and least ambiguity. Ensure they are the ones whom you stretch and challenge the most.
Designing the choice architecture:
Through informed design, you can make a bigger impact on those who need it the most. Our cognitive biases have to be deconstructed by building a structure whereby you and your learners make better decisions and enable greater progress. There is so much we can design and I look forward to exploring and sharing more. Here a few tips to get your nudging your practice to meet the needs of more in your classroom.
Nudge seating plans - design your seating plans knowing that when you are in a lesson, you will go into 'auto-pilot' and your automated systems will kick in. Where should your learners with the greatest barriers sit to benefit from your teaching?
Nudge greeting - get into the routine of saying 'hello' to every learner in every lesson. Design your choice architecture to make this a necessity, such as standing by the door of the classroom, welcoming all learners in.
Nudge starters - design your starters to engage those with greatest barriers first. These activities should allow all to be stretched and challenged. There can be nothing worse for a learner if they feel you are not pushing them as much as others. Make sure that the learners with the most barriers will be stretched at the start of every lesson.
Plan you teaching for learners with the most barriers first
Get to know what a 'barrier' looks like for all learners in your classroom
Love the learners who need it the most
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