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.