Is too much to expect that only outstanding teachers should teach our most challenging children?

Francis Gilbert's picture
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I appeared on Radio 5 Live tonight, The Steve Nolan Show, talking about a supply teacher's book about his experiences of the "front-line". I haven't read the book but from the extracts I've read in The Guardian I can see the it's a tale of woe, with the poor protagonist being constantly challenged by his charges. I pointed out that the book isn't representative of schools as a whole; Ofsted judges 86% of lessons to have good behaviour.

I then spoke about my own experiences of dealing with bad behaviour in the classroom; I've faced my fair share in twenty years of teaching; I wrote a book, I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here about some of them; this book is about my experiences as a young teacher. I faced some difficult classes which rioted during my first year of teaching; but instead of upping sticks straightaway, I stuck it out and did get the children to behave by the end of my time at that inner city school.

On the radio programme, I explained that after a bad lesson, I force myself to reflect upon what went wrong and how I could improve the pupils' behaviour; more often than not, it's all about engaging the pupils and making them feel that they can succeed; giving them meaningful, purposeful work that they can actively engage with. Furthermore, it's about keeping calm when faced with challenging behaviour, about following the school's policies when appropriate and, above all, focusing upon the pupils' learning, being passionate about your subject and making it accessible to all the pupils. It's also about sharing your thoughts and ideas with colleagues and working out solutions. Although I would obviously like to think about myself as a good teacher -- I take great pride in doing my job to the best of my abilities -- I know I am by no means exceptional; I know a great many teachers who are really amazing, who day after day give all their hearts and souls to teaching; I would rate myself way down the ranking compared with them! And let the public be reassured, there a great many of these teachers; the vast majority basically.

More than anything, it's about commitment; the people who suffer the most are supply teachers because the pupils know they are not there for the duration. That's why I don't think the supply teacher's book can really be taken that seriously -- even if he is telling the truth, which is a bit dubious since he's decided to write under a pseudonym! The book could have been written by Samantha Cameron's stylist for all we know.

Katherine Birbalsingh, who spoke at the Tory Party conference about our 'broken schools', was speaking on the show with me and was actually very nice about me, saying that the thing is not all teachers can be outstanding like me (which made me feel good although it wasn't based on that much evidence other my words!), that they can't spend 70 hours a week planning and preparing lessons, and that we need systems and support for "average" teachers.

While I agree that all teachers need good support from senior management, I think it's not absolutely essential for the solitary teacher. I've taught in schools where the management was terrible and yet I saw great teachers really have a good grip on some very awkward classes; they were committed, energetic individuals who knew that ultimately no headteacher is going to bail you out if you're crap. Ultimately, any experienced teachers knows poor behaviour in the classroom is the teacher's responsibility; the vast majority of children want to learn but can feel like failures, particularly when faced with supply teachers day in and day out. It makes them feel like they are not wanted.

Fundamentally, I disagree with Katherine about her point that we can't expect all teachers to be excellent; I think firstly we must presume the highest standards of our teachers; I think we must think positively of them in the first instance. It's a bit like dealing with a class in the first day of teaching them; I always say that I expect them to have excellent behaviour and attitudes. If we start off with a negative presumption of anyone, they often live up to those expectations.

Above all, I think all our children deserve brilliant teachers, particularly children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. I think our most challenging students need outstanding, committed teachers and that we need to support schools that are struggling by putting the best teachers in them. That's why I think Teach First is such a great programme; the school my son will go to Bethnal Green Technology College has been turned around because the Head has focused upon putting fantastic teachers in the classrooms, many of whom are from Teach First. The school's results have gone through the roof because of some excellent teaching.

In a way, I'm sounding a bit like Michael Gove, except that I'm not because I don't necessarily think that ex-army or very academic people make great teachers. And I certainly don't think that "free schools" or "academies" have a monopoly on good teaching; while I've come across some great teachers at academies, some of the best teachers I've seen have been in the maintained sector. I've actually encountered some very demotivated teachers at some academies.

On the question of qualifications, I feel you can't generalise. I can think of some absolutely incredible teachers who had no degrees at all; who weren't tough guys with bulging muscles. For example, let's talk about Margaret (not her real name because I don't want to embarrass her), she was a businesswoman for making years with no degree, but is currently a mentor; her tireless work with difficult pupils has been amazing. She's given up so many hours listening to pupils and working out what's best for them; she teaches, she plans, she talks to other teachers, she talks to parents, she sets targets for the pupils, she checks up on whether the work is done, she is just brilliant! I've seen children predicted to get E and F grades at GCSEs attain A*s because of her intervention. She's not a senior teacher, she's a "facilitator" and she never gives up. She's what every challenging child needs to get them on the right track. Above all, she works very, very hard.

Although the programme started off relentlessly focusing upon the negative, it was good for it to end upon us examining in detail what goes on in and out of the classroom; we were actually beginning to have a proper discussion what is needed in our most difficult classrooms. We must insist that our classrooms are staffed by brilliant teachers! Now let's all work together to make that happen!
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