Sunday, September 16, 2007

Teaching skills:taught or caught?

Yesterday, as Mr B and I drove across the country, sat on the ferry (4 times) and drove to Largs and back, we talked about teaching. Sad, isn't it - you'd think we might have given up on that sort of thing, but there you are. We were examining the skills that can be taught as opposed to inherent skills - and we were thinking about the skills of teaching.

All too often I've had my suggestions for effective management and teaching brushed aside with the comment: "Ah, but that's you. Other people/I/he can't do that - will never be able to do that."

And for a while I accepted this - after all, it's slightly smug-making, and besides, I had a job to do. But revisiting the subject I'm inclined to think there's stuff that could be taught at college, and ways of showing potential teachers how to make their own lives easier.

What matters most in a teaching day? I'd suggest that it's how you feel at the start of each new period. Are you looking forward to this class because you know you and they are going to have a good time together? Or have you a sinking feeling because this is the class from hell and you know that in an hour you're going to feel you do a really stupid job and you have achieved nothing and the kids hate you and you hate them?

If the latter, and if this recurs day in, day out, year in, year out then your life is hell and you're probably in the wrong job - but how do you redress this? Or, better still, what strategies would have helped you from the start? I'd suggest that the key lies in how you relate to your friends, to people you meet socially, to people whose path crosses yours. I'm talking here about your adult contacts, your peers. Think about how you behave with people you like. Then compare that with how you behave to the average class. Are you the same person? Or do you assume a persona which you cast off the moment the bell rings at 4 o'clock?

When I returned to teaching after an 8-year break for child rearing the main difference I noticed in myself was that the person in the classroom was the same person who went home to my kids. I no longer put on any persona - certainly something I had done in my first couple of jobs. And the pupils responded in such a way that suddenly everything seemed easier. As time went on, I realised also that I'd stopped worrying about status, about making mistakes, about admitting to a mistake or a lack of omniscience. I was able to take real pleasure in having a pupil suggest something I'd not thought of - and we celebrated these moments. Often I'd find myself in tucks of laughter at something a pupil had said, so that we could all have a good belly-laugh together.

So how would I teach this to aspiring teachers? I'd suggest they look at their interaction with friends, and then with pupils, and aim to make them the same. They need to enjoy the company of their pupils just as they do the other people with whom they come into contact. And they need to learn how to show that enjoyment without ever losing sight of the nature of the pupil/teacher relationship. That last, of course, becomes much easier with age - but I still think it can be learned at an early stage.

And if you're the kind of person who finds it hard to walk into a party and start socialising? Well, you've a harder row to hoe, but there is a final ace to play. Whether you're naturally gregarious or not, you have to have a passion for your subject. If you don't think it's the most important and wonderful subject in the curriculum, how're you going to teach it with any conviction at all? And maybe that's something you can't be taught. But if you're not passionate about the stuff you'll be teaching for the next x years, then maybe - just maybe - you're in the wrong job. And God help your poor, bored pupils.


  1. You are absolutely right! I was lucky enough to do this from the word go and couldn't really understand why people went into their classrooms completely different people from the way they were in the Staff room.

    Thank God I don't have to worry about this anymore...

  2. PS - I need an audience. Feel free to add me to your 'links'

  3. Anonymous10:35 AM

    Your comment that you might have given up on thinking about teaching made me laugh - my Mum retired 10 years ago from teaching English, but you wouldn't know it from the way she still talks about "her department" :)

  4. Anonymous11:42 PM

    And I suppose one might ponder whether it is possible to teach or learn whatever it is that clergy do - if we know what that is. For what it's worth, I think that it is. Much of what clergy do isn't functionally very difficult or demanding. The problem is that, to do it really well and creatively is extremely demanding. Or so I've heard. I think I'll stick to the nursery slopes.

  5. bishop david - your comment comes at the end of a day when I've been working on a sermon. Very much outwith my comfort zone, however well I managed as a teacher! Will I ever get away from my notes?

  6. Anonymous11:01 PM

    Every blessing on your sermon, Chris, but don't forget that the same enthusiasm you describe in teaching applies to a good sermon. Just be yourself and be enthusiastic about God, faith, church....and it will all work out.

  7. Just getting to this now -catching up with my blog reading. I found this really helpful and totally agree that there is something more to teaching than technique. Being enthusiastic (genuinely) and actually looking for 'the person behind the pupil' has helped me a lot.