Are you the teacher you wanted to be?

Neil Atkin

Neil Atkin has 20 years of teaching experience, the last nine as an Advanced Skills teacher in challenging schools. Starting the website to transform learning and understanding, he discovered that the way to succeed was not to try to make the curriculum engaging, but to shift the paradigm and to find the engaging activities then add the curriculum. With this, rates of reaction can be taught using powerkites, momentum with rockets and the science of survival skills and surfing can hit a huge number of concepts! Having only left teaching recently due to a hearing loss, Neil’s experience is very current. He still regularly teaches and doesn’t deliver anything unless he knows it works.

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This is the question I have asked to teachers I am working with across the world. In Pakistan, Kenya, Europe, Australia and many more places. The answer in well over 99% of the cases is a resounding 'No'. How can this be? Are we a profession of moaners, never happy, or do we have a real cause for complaint? I decided to investigate further. I asked teachers why they wanted to be teachers.

"We will fail to meet some of our students needs because we can't possibly meet them all."

The vast majority of teachers had been inspired by one of their own teachers when they were at school and wanted to pass this gift on. We are the bows and they are the arrows we send forth into the world, equipped with the knowledge, skills and passion to make choices for themselves.

Often adverts for teaching show eager young people waiting for you to take them on a journey of discovery. Teachers want to make a difference to all their students lives, and maybe this is where reality really bites. We are forced to compromise some of our ideals. We will fail to meet some of our students needs because we can't possibly meet them all. We are dealing with large groups of individuals with different drivers and expectations. Young people don't usually make rational decisions as to what is best for their long term future, nor looking to good role models as guides to help them on their way. Paradoxically, we can end up battling with them in a bizarre fight to stop them making bad decisions. It's as if we care for their future more than they do.

Teaching is a very simple and straightforward profession... to people who have never taught!

We wouldn't expect an actor to put on 5 or 6 exemplary performances a day in front of an audience who may not want to be there and have no interest in the play. Suppose you further hamper the actor by not allowing them to choose their own material. Finally you judge them on how well their audience recalls the performance. We expect a teacher to do this on a daily basis, that is a huge ask. This pressure to perform without error, both intrinsic and extrinsic, leads to risk aversion. We want to inspire and create curiosity, but this is also potentially risky. The pressure is relentless and many teachers switch to a survival mode, it's not inspiring but it is safe. The students do ok in their exams so we carry on producing competent exam passers but not passionate scientists, historians and mathematicians. This is not what we went into teaching for.

Some schools have removed risk even further by producing formulaic systems, even to the point of scripted lessons. Is a totally ordered risk-free environment the best preparation for an uncertain future? Time will tell.

What reasons did teachers give for not being the teacher they wanted to be?

Time - there is never enough time to plan and mark and do everything needed to be the best you can be. Many jobs allow you to know you have done everything, met every criteria and ticked every box. Teaching doesn't work like that, whatever you do you could probably have done it better. More time would probably bring you nearer to where you want to be, but it's probably not the only thing.

Pressure to perform - Performance-related pay is an insult to good teachers, as it assumes that they would try harder if there was a financial incentive. This to me almost devalues our professional integrity by putting a financial value on it. There is huge pressure on teachers to get students good exam results and to provide copious data to prove their effectiveness. Many teachers feel, with justification, that they spend more time proving to others that they are doing a good job than actually spending time trying to be better.

Ironically, research by the likes of Robert Bjork and Alfie Kohn tends to suggest that the more we focus on performance, the lower the performance can be. When we focus on results then we move away from learning. "If you have 30 students, then spending two minutes each with them or their work means an hour gone."As teachers we know that education doesn't finish with the exams. We have invested in our students and feel responsible for them for life. This is something researchers don't seem to understand and I have yet to see anything that goes beyond results.

Pressure from parents in some schools can be limiting to what you can do. A colleague started teaching Maths in a prestigious independent school. On the first day he told his students that he wouldn't be teaching them much as they were going to do a lot of learning themselves. By the next morning there were two letters of complaint addressed to the head about him. We can end up battling with parents in trying to create better learners.

Onerous marking - Part of the problem with teaching is the numbers of students we deal with. If you have 30 students, then spending two minutes each with them or their work means an hour gone. Even worse, research by Professor Dylan Wiliam found that for most marking only 15% of students actually read and acted on the comments [stats]. So from your hour of marking only 10 minutes was effective in improving the learning of the students. This is horribly inefficient and detracts from the real purpose of teaching.

Behaviour of students - Imagine spending hours planning a party to the last detail. Then when the guests come they don't touch the food, they don't like the music you chose, they are rude and can't wait to leave. That's how teaching can feel and it can be demoralising. Feedback from students can be instant and brutal, like standing in front of a large number of X Factor judges. Ideals can be destroyed and you can rapidly become the teacher you vowed you would never be as you react to this.

So, fundamentally, why are most teachers not the teacher they wanted to be?

Maybe we are a bunch of moaners, but moaners with the moral high ground - we want to be better for our students. Maybe it's a positive thing - we strive to be better. Sadly though many fine teachers are getting out of the profession as they see it as untenable. Hang on in there people, be the best you can be. That's all anyone can ask.

Do you agree? Let us know below.

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