The engaging teacher in two schools

The engaging teacher in the crap school

In bad schools, a form of natural selection occurs meaning that the engaging teachers are the best teachers.

In a crap school, teachers are often left to manage behaviour themselves. Even when there’s a half decent member of SMT or two and a good Head of Year, the SMT member can help but can’t do it without great systems, so they still have to manage themselves.

As in every school, a reputation gathers around the best teachers. The ones where the kids want to be, their books are marked, and the teacher rarely has to deal with behaviour issues. Occasionally, the reputation is with the strict or maverick teacher who has been there 30 years and doesn’t give a shit. However, usually in crap schools the reputation is earned by the teacher “engaging” pupils in the lesson.

In a crap school, these teachers are brilliant at engagement. They will stand on desks, or have a “surprise” for the pupils every lesson. Sometimes, they’ll teach “maths” or “history” outside and have kids running about. They might have “STOP – DO NOT CROSS” emblazoned on their door to make the kids wonder what is inside one day, or a chalk outline of a body on the floor in another. They usually spend a long time planning activities that will engage pupils and try to liaise with other departments about how to cross fertilise.

They always work hard, often to the extent that other colleagues wonder how they can possibly manage. These teachers rarely have kids, sometimes have responsibility (and then they think they’re leading ‘by example’). They also often want to be loved – by the kids, by colleagues and by SMT and parents. Sometimes they are on SMT. If they’re on SMT that’s sort of helpful as it means others just assume they can only turn that sort of lesson out because of the time they have.

They’re not unprofessional at all. They probably get average results or thereabouts (nationally) which is good in a school that likely gets terrible results, so they’re doing about the best possible for those kids. Not having many behaviour problems in a school like that is some achievement. The other pupils will often sort out this sort of teacher’s issues in lessons because they enjoy the lessons. They’re fun and the kids want to be there. Learning happens, but is secondary to fun.

For other staff, criticism of these teachers (or teacher; there’s rarely many of them in a school) seems absurd, even if other teachers feel bad at not being able to match the quality of that teacher’s lessons. Often this thought manifests itself as:

“This teacher is what we should strive to be like, even if we can never get there”

I once had a member of SMT say to me “love, we don’t need competency procedures because the kids make bad teachers’ lives difficult so they leave. Those that learn how to teach, enjoy it here”. Of course, he was referring to “bad teachers” as “teachers that aren’t engaging”.

This anecdote is no exaggeration by the way – the SMT member thought that the lack of engagement led to the bad behaviour (well it did I suppose, in the structure set up by the school) and that was a positive for weeding out teachers who were not engaging.

He’s right about them leaving, of course. Good teachers leave or have breakdowns. Tragically many leave the profession. Engaging teachers stay. Many learn to become a version of an engaging teacher in order to survive. They don’t generally learn more about proper pedagogy, or their subject, but about how to entertain kids.

There are those with high expectations of behaviour in a crap school – and if they’re the exception, they can be the isolated instances of exceptional results. Very often, this is a Subject Leader, experienced teacher or member of SMT. It’s not available to NQTs.

The dominant ideology, though, is that ‘engaging’ kids is good for progress and a prerequisite for learning. This is reinforced by behaviour policies that leave the teacher isolated to “own” the sanctions, by SMT that believe that one has to “develop relationships” first and other aspects that lead to unclear priorities.

The engaging teacher in a good school

Most of the above still applies.However behaviour is sorted by effective systems and good leadership.

The engaging teacher still produces fun lessons, and pupils still want to be there. A few more will make more effort at her homework as a result of a better culture.

The teacher who concentrates on subject knowledge and studious work down the hall will also have good behaviour because of systems. Those pupils are learning about the subject and the content. They are thinking about dates in history, algorithms in maths, or grammar in English. They are not thinking about who can run fastest to the answer or ways their teacher might be tricking them. They are learning.

The engaging teacher in a good school may not (and in fact probably will not) be the weakest member of staff, but their results are suddenly poor, significantly below average for the school and hovering around or just below national average. She will have all sorts of reasons for these, and in a good school these will be dismissed as excuses:

“You cannot massage your figures upwards by discounting Esmerelda because she has a shit home life – particularly because she was above national average in most subjects.”

“We are measuring by progress, not measuring you by C+ grades as you had the top set.”

“No, it is not acceptable to claim you only taught them for 2 of the 5 years so we should pretend that this is only 2 years progress”

The engaging teacher in a good school usually works harder, and the pupils learn less than the teacher that worries about subject content and how we get pupils to think about what they are learning, rather than worrying about how to get the kids to have fun.

In a good school, those that really know their subjects and how novices develop their understanding in the subject come to the fore.

The engaging teacher in a good school that used to be a bad school

I’ve seen an engaging teacher in a shit school that became a good school, and I’ve seen her get frazzled and almost want kids to misbehave. It’s like she wanted the old days of the shit school. She still worked harder than anyone else.

Most people just shrugged though. Some referred to how she appeared to hate kids. No-one looked up to her. Her marking was still some of the best in the school though, and that held her results up.

This teacher was one individual, and I don’t know how her career ended up. However, I can’t help feeling that she was one more victim of poor behaviour in schools – the kind of behaviour that unchecked (or little-checked) encouraged teachers to “engage” their pupils at the expense of at least some learning. There are plenty of teachers on the scrapheap who could have been superb, and maybe with her hardwork directed at learning this teacher could have been as well.

There’s also a thread running through this line of thought about working class kids and low aspirations and expectations. The engaging teacher, or the school that encourages engaging teachers rather than ones that are studious, is guilty of assuming the kids can’t just learn.

Learning subjects is hard. We have to make kids do it. In my experience, schools and teachers that insist on it rather than persuade kids via engagement are good schools. If you need to engage kids, in my experience you’re in a crap school.

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13 thoughts on “The engaging teacher in two schools

  1. Your definition of engaging is very loose. I work in an outstanding international school having previously worked in indie schools. Ive never been interested in fads and am deeply sceptical of any activity that distracts kids’ minds from the topic at hand. Nevertheless, I believe engagement is at the core of all good teaching, whether through bedazzling subject knowledge or a consistent variety of activities. I think i get what u r inkling at… but could you be more precise?

    • One of the issues, as you correctly identify, is that engagement is such a vague term. However, my experience is that it can loosely be translated as ‘fun for pupils’ – at least to some extent. Once a teacher aims for that, even partly, the whole aim of the lesson is not the subject content – hence there is opportunity cost when one considers how much could have been learnt. Opportunity cost is the key aspect here as we have finite time available.

      Some lessons are ‘fun’ anyway, as you identify. Pupils who are practicing sums or solving equations can find time passes quickly and express that they enjoyed those lessons. That’s just a by product of previous hard work that has allowed them to enjoy practicing.

      I also don’t agree with “consistent variety of activities”. This is what Blue Peter does, and is solely to keep kids entertained. Sometimes we have to force kids to focus for longer than they want on one piece of learning – it might be hard, but as I said, learning is hard.

      • Absolutely agree with your reply here. ‘Variety’ is bandied around as the panacea. It’s actually part of the problem. Knowledge-lite fun-based ‘variety’ invariably attempts to disguise work, to dilute it to such an extent that activities enter realm of homeopathy. This constant quest for variety, for fun, for boredom free lessons places an enormous pressure upon teachers’ time. We don’t need endless variety! We need a small selection of very very very effective strategies that we recycle. Kids & teachers know precisely where they stand, teacher burnout eased and kids learn to focus and succeed.

  2. I found this interesting yet slightly offensive. The overwhelming impression you give is contempt towards ‘engaging teachers.’ This concerns me.

    I find your definition of ‘engaging teachers’ incredibly narrow. You give the impression that a teacher can only engage children by running around, doing role play or being outside. This is wrong. There is not a set format for engaging children. A lecture can engage. Role play can engage. Individually tackling ‘meaty’ mathematical/scientific problems is engaging. A debate is engaging. You get the idea…

    As a profession we have been fighting for years to have the freedom to teach in the way that suits our subject/phase/personality, let’s celebrate that and learn from each other and then we can utilise a wider variety of methods for the different phases/subjects/schools we find ourselves in.

    • I certainly don’t mean to offend so I’m sorry about that. I have seen teachers who work themselves to the bone to create engaging lessons and pupils fail to get grades as a result of not learning as much as they would.

      I think “a lecture can engage” is true, the point is that a great lecture can also be boring but more useful than an engaging one.

      I also think there is an issue with the word, as I’ve already said. It’s vague and so suits everyone.

      • Yes. There is a problem with the vagueness of the word.

        I’m concerned again that you think “boring [is] more useful than an engaging one.” Anything can be engaging. Learning something new is engaging.

        Perhaps you could substitute the word ‘engaging’ for ‘motivating’?

        Making lessons ‘fun’ should never be our priority but nor should we seek to make lessons deliberately dull.

  3. I love your posts John – they cut like razorwire.

    I definitely recognise myself in the engaging teacher in bad school role – I realise that I tiptoe dangerous close to the tipping point between educator and CBBC presenter. You really hit the nail on the head, as far as I am concerned at least. My jazzy ways do not necessarily translate into the best results or the best quality work (except in Maths, strangely) but I get a lot of visibility and praise.

    My only problem is that I’m in a good school, and I recognise that I may be just at the high point on a deeply slippery slope. I guess my choice is either to get my wretched self on TES Jobs, or to carry on flapping my flouncy wings like a foppish man-bird, and await my Icarus moment.

    • Thanks for the comment. I suspect that if you’re thinking about it and not just accepting what you’re told, you’re probably on the road to doing the right thing in your classroom.

  4. A thoroughly enjoyable read, thank you.

    I’m a secondary maths teacher and during my PGCE year it will drilled into us that lessons ought to be an all-singing all-dancing extravaganza of fun. I remember the tutors suggesting that if you have 3 lessons with a particular class each week then you might reasonably plan what was termed a “textbook lesson” for one of these 3 but the other 2 ought to be filled with exicitng, engaging activities (which take a lifetime to prepare). I never really bought it, and upon qualifying I took a job in a good school and this had the effect of sucking this attitude out of me. Too many teachers make the assumption that the quality of a lesson is directly proportional to the amount of time that has been spent preparing it. Too few teachers realise that burning yourself out planning lessons is a false ecomony since you’re no use to anyone in the classroom in such a state.

    Having said this, whilst it is true that teachers who try too hard to engage can come up a cropper, I think it’s also true that teachers who make no effort to engage whatsoever can be equally unsuccessful. Good teachers make an effort to sell their subject to their pupils, although they know at the back of their minds that those who can’t be won over should still be forced to purchase it. You should try and show enthusiasm for what you’re doing. You should try and put lessons in context and show youngsters why what you’re teaching is relavent to them. And, crucially, you need to show the pupils you teach that you care about them, not so much that you care about their entertainment but that you care about their acheivement. I’m skeptical that just being in a good school is enough to get away with teaching “unengaging” lessons. You also need to have a good rapport with the classes you teach and have good relationships with the pupils.

    I worry that you’re assuming that results are all that count – it’s no good getting an A* in maths if you then hate the subject for life and have no interest in pursuing further study in it when more mathematicians are desperately needed. Isn’t part of a teacher’s job to excite and inspire young people?

    It does seem like the wind in blowing against engagement now since inspectors, perhaps quite righly, seem more preoccupied with “progress”. But as I suggested earlier if you want things to change, you have to start with the universities.

  5. I’ve worked in a crap school and a good school
    In the crap school I had to be engaging to survive, the (non-teaching) Head’s favourite quote was “is your lesson worth behaving for?”, I hated it.
    In the good school I cut right back on the entertainment and taught the nitty gritty of my subject. The kids moaned at first “why can’t we do anything fun?” But they got the best results and were engaged because they were successful, not because I had resorted to off the wall techniques and sweets as bribes.
    I may not have been their favourite teacher, but I was their best (their words, not mine)

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