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Lessons from my Trainees

1. Teachers improve
Next time someone tells you “they are/(aren’t) a natural teacher”, smack them. Do they apply that sort of fixed mind-set to their pupils? I’ve seen trainees come such a long way over the year- at least give them a chance and give them the support they deserve.
2. Content first, delivery next
I’m no neo-traditionalist when it comes to ‘content’ and ‘knowledge’, but trainees tend to spend so much time worrying about what activities they’ll do, that they forget to think about what they are actually trying to teach. Decide what you want pupils to understand/be able to do, and then, (very logically), break it down and work out what they need to know and understand in order to do that. Then work out the most effective way of getting that across to them. It sounds simple but is frequently overlooked. Ask yourself, what will pupils have learned by the end of the lesson- could they have learned more? Have you been ambitious enough about that?
3. Assessment is only as useful as what you do with it. 
By the end of this year I wanted to cry every time I saw another round of traffic lights or thumbs up/thumbs down. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t dislike those strategies (some of the best lessons I taught used these techniques), what kills me is people using them ‘for the sake of it’, or, because ‘Ofsted like that’.
These techniques are useful if:
  • You want to check pupils have understood an instruction and want to get a realistic assessment of the whole class rather than just asking “hands up if you don’t understand”/”Does everyone understand?”. But in these cases it should only take a few seconds and just be something you naturally do rather than be a feature of the lesson or a “mini-plenary”.
  • You are genuinely assessing of a substantive piece of learning and you do something with it! Meaningful assessment for learning is about adapting teaching in response to information about what pupils have/haven’t understood. If you use one of these techniques (or indeed a simpler “AfL strategy” – like walking around the class looking at what pupils have written), you need to DO something with the information you gather. You need to adapt your lesson! If your assessment shows that they’ve understood, then move on; if some of them have/ haven’t understood, then use the pupils who understood to support those who haven’t; If very few of them have, then work out where the misconception lies, why the approach you took didn’t work. And act on it.
4. It’s not what you do but how well you do it
When you’re asked how your lesson went, remember that it didn’t go well because you used x, y or z strategy. There are teachers who teach well because they’re really interesting to listen to, teachers who teach well because they ask great questions, teachers who teach well because they can structure a group debate really well, etc. It’s not good enough to plan a lesson with lots of interesting activities for it to be a great lesson. How you deliver it and how well the activity was adapted to the objective is what will make the difference.
5. How will you move from ping pong to basket-ball

A perfect example of ‘doing things well’ is questioning and this Dylan William video is one of the best explanations of it I’ve seen.

Some of my best moments in teaching have been spent bouncing questions round the room, constructing understanding by asking pupils the right questions, challenging them on their answers and moving the quality up, step by step. I love Dylan’s analogy of basket-ball versus ping pong. Trainees should hone this skill, make it pacey and insist on getting pupils to build on their answers until they achieve a spot on, solid response.
One of the things trainees find out in their first year is just how hard teaching is. However, by focusing on the simple basics, from voice to questioning, they can make great progress. If you are a mentor you can help trainees do this by organising observations of other teachers and giving the trainee very specific questions which help them work out how the teacher makes things successful rather than just the basics of what is happening.
So- trainees, congratulations on reaching this important milestone. Now good luck with the rest of the journey- keep improving!

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