Originally Published July 2015
At the end of May I left my first school; the school I trained in. I cared a huge amount for the students, respected so many of my colleagues and felt passionately about education and working with young people. However, after putting in 70 hour weeks while writing essays in the holidays I had also become incredibly stressed, weighed down by some difficult staff, a huge workload and unruly behaviour.
It was a constant and energetic three point tug of war between frustration, depression and hysterical happiness. The most wearying, dreadful days were invariably followed by huge emotional highs. After three years I have some idea about what makes a good lesson but I’m much more certain about what makes a bad one…
In teaching there is a pressure, a professional responsibility even, to be positive, patient and energetic at all times. A poor night’s sleep, a missed bus, a run-in with a difficult colleague, the knowledge that you have a parents’ evening until 8pm, a kid being rude in the corridor, spilling coffee all over yourself (let alone relationships, family, deaths, illnesses). When you’re engaging in hundreds of complex relationships and juggling various social and professional pressures, the model teaching demeanour can be tricky to maintain.
When you’re already in a bad mood, standing in front of 30 kids who expect you to be essentially the same every day, is tough. There’s always a class you like least which epitomises this problem. You dread those lessons while at the same time are aware that your negative attitude is spinning the whole group into a vicious and unhappy decline.
When I left, one student reminded me of a time I had tackled this problem in a superbly unprofessional manner: ‘look everyone, I’m in a really bad mood this morning – I’m probably going to run out of patience extremely quickly.’ I cringe at the memory but she said she’d appreciated my honesty. Perhaps it made me more human.
But before getting carried away by this one alternative-spirited feel-good memory, it’s important to be clear that my bad mood frequently ruined lessons and damaged relationships with pupils; generally it wasn’t a disarming and endearing reminder of our shared humanity, it was a sign that I was stressed, anxious, under-prepared or under-supported.
It’s the teacher’s professional responsibility to be calm, understanding and predictable – particularly for kids who face a lot of uncertainty. Teachers need to work to stay on top of their emotions while school leaders need to support them. The fact remains, a teacher’s mood will always affect a lesson and as a rule: bad mood = bad teacher.
The second, and most high profile, depth charge to a lesson is the behaviour of the pupils. Many non-teachers think bad behaviour consists of fighting and shouting out. In reality it is an attritional (sometimes instinctive) resistance. I have compiled a (by no means exhaustive) list of common behaviours:
- Late to lesson. ‘I’m not late!’, ‘I was talking to Ms/Mr X about and important issue Y and therefore my penalisation is unfair and I am morally justified to misbehave.’ (No.1 alone can derail a whole lesson).
- Sitting in the wrong seat (moving incredibly slowly to their seat).
- Wrong name (a classic for a new teacher/class).
- Refusal / reticence to sit somewhere else when asked.
- Talking to someone across the room.
- Not getting out equipment (book, pen etc).
- Out of chair (‘putting something in the bin’).
- Interrupting the teacher (‘I was only asking for …’).
- Teacher mid-sentence, pupil: ‘what’s the date?’
- Chewing gum (refusing to remove it, ‘swallowing’ it, putting some of it in the bin, putting it in the bin and then eating more later, all of these are at some point accompanied by the grim view of a wide open mouth, pink tonsils and ‘look! Nothing!’).
- Talking to the person next to them.
- Talking over other people’s answers.
- Shouting out answers.
- Doing no work (‘don’t understand’, ‘what are we doing?’).
- Arguing / sulking when challenged about lack of work.
- Swinging on chair.
- Laughing when certain students give an answer (and other boredom-induced bullying).
- Eye-rolling, kissing teeth etc. Arguing when challenging this.
- The big ones. Full on arguments / storming out / over turned tables / chairs. This is where a student doubles down. Usually if you haven’t nailed down 1-18).
The above is basically a catalogue of resistance (passive and active). Teachers and schools have a code and behaviours that break that code are ‘bad’. This code should aim to keep kids safe and help them learn. If kids go against this you have two basic options: the first is make it unpleasant not to follow the code (phone calls home, detentions and so on); the second is get them to buy into the code (they see the point of it and/or enjoy the learning).
You get schools on one end of the spectrum where students walk around corridors in silence and are severely punished for breaking clearly defined rules; and you get schools where students and teachers collaborate to write curricula, have optional lessons and greater freedoms. Most schools are somewhere in between – well probably closer to the former.
Whatever your preferred balance you have to stand by the code. This can be really hard. At classroom level you have up to thirty students (egos, needs, perspectives); hundreds, thousands of micro-events, relationships, family members; millions of experiences; all fizzing around in one classroom. And it might be really hot, or snowing or the last day of term or whatever. At a school level you’re dealing with potentially thousands of kids, the critical mass ready to swing towards a complete rejection of that code (and even worse, teachers who may not come with you).
A teacher needs to take responsibility for the behaviour in their class but it all starts with leadership. Regardless of the causes and possible solutions, bad behaviour scuppers a good lesson.
What’s the Point?
The third cause of a bad lesson is thorny. It strikes deep into the messy heart of education. What’s the point of all this? First off, kids need to know why they’re in school, in this lesson, doing this stuff. Usually they are unimaginatively palmed off with ‘to pass exams, to get a job, to have money, to be happy.’ Teachers complain about this, but it is also handy to fall back on when you’re not sure:
‘Why do we have to use a ruler?’
‘errr…if you don’t you won’t pass your exam, get a job, have money or be happy.’
Exams are a measure of competence, not an end in themselves. The aim of driving lessons is to be able to drive, the test just checks that you can. I would hope that few teachers would argue that exam qualifications are the main aim of education, but when SATs or GCSE results are repeatedly scrutinised as the measure of a pupil’s, and teacher’s, worth, every noble aim is refracted through the prism of exams.
Schools’ careers advice also leaves a lot to be desired. Schools seem to rarely go further than GOOD EXAMS = GOOD JOB. Even this proposed correlation is watered down by the constant undermining of examination standards, business leaders complaining about the quality of the education system, the continued devaluation of ‘non-academic’ subjects and the skewing effects of privilege (class, gender or race). All of which unsettles students and teachers alike as they continue to say, robotically, half-believing: GOOD EXAMS = GOOD JOB. A student of mine with learning difficulties was predicted E grades at GCSE. He spoke to me, downcast, about being a failure and that he just wanted ‘a job and a family.’ The school and society’s emphasis on examinations had led him to believe that 11 years of education meant nothing.
Even when we talk about making lessons enjoyable I think this is usually about ‘engaging activities’, a couple of video clips and group work (none of which I’m trying to knock). Rarely is enjoyment spoken about in the manner of personal fulfilment from learning – the enjoyable sense of empowerment gained from learning. If this is spoken about, it doesn’t underpin what we do in schools. What we do in schools is try to train kids to pass exams. Good teachers do this effectively. Great teachers also make it entertaining. In essence, enjoyment is about facilitating the process, rather than being an end in itself.
The whole structure is weighted against getting kids engaged because we do not satisfactorily answer the question: what’s the point of all this? At a classroom level this manifests itself in weak objectives. At the root of any bad lesson is an unclear objective.
One of the greatest influences on my teaching was a student of mine called Connor. He is articulate, intelligent, passionate, and, above all, questions things. I think he enjoyed English, I definitely enjoyed having him in my class. If he wasn’t interested in a task he would say ‘what’s the point of this?’ Sometimes I could explain (whether to him or to myself later), other times I was genuinely stumped. If I can’t explain the point of a task or lesson, why were we doing it in the first place? It is phenomenal how many pointless things we do in schools.
This pernicious pointlessness has seeped into accepted practice. Take, for instance, English teachers’ obsession with similes and metaphors. Kids are drilled and drilled and drilled from the age of 5 on similes and metaphors. Worksheets titled ‘Simile OR Metaphor: Identify from the Examples Below.’ But it doesn’t matter! What matters is the meaning, the purpose, the feeling!
You don’t need to tell kids what the point of everything is, but you should know and be confident about deciding what Is worth talking and reading about. Even if the point of a lesson is to celebrate the work of other students (thereby building a culture of respect or enjoyment) or to try to question something in more depth or to give them a break from all the stress of exams.
So those are the three possible components of a bad lesson:
- Teacher in the wrong frame of mind
- Students in the wrong frame of mind
- Lack of Purpose
It’s hard to teach good lessons. What can make this worse, are all the satellites of the teaching world that sometimes come crashing down on you at the worst times: Ofsted, performance management, poor organisation, weak behaviour policies, unsupportive leadership, unsupportive government, poverty. The list goes on. When you’re hit by a perfect storm, your day can be truly awful. However, the bad only stands to accent the good and the contrast between these two made the last three years electric.