Becoming an excellent teacher: can we rewrite the myth of Sisyphus?


One of the most unexpected things about starting a blog is how many new opportunities it offers to you. For most of my career I have hidden behind my classroom door – or, more recently, my computer screen – quietly getting on with my day-to-day business. So it was an honour and a surprise to be asked to present a key-note speech at the NQT Meet at the Sir Robert Woodard Academy this evening.

Being a novice public speaker, I wrote the whole thing out first before I practised it to death. Here it is in all its 2,000 word glory (a bit long for a blog post, I know). It draws on much I have read in other blogs over the past few months as well as the ideas of Albert Camus. I hope it is of some use to you.

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I have been given a difficult task, no an impossible one – describing what it means to be an excellent teacher. Please let me start with a confession. I don’t consider myself to be an excellent teacher, just one who is interested in the idea of what excellence in teaching might be and how we might reach such dizzying heights.

So, to start, I’d like to take you on back eight years to my NQT year…

Charles Dickens wrote ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ My NQT year could be summed up in the same way. Some memories come to mind immediately:

  • First, my wonderful Y10 top set, the kind of class who would let you get away with your mistakes – and there were many. I could probably name all those students even now.
  • I distinctly recall a fantastic piece of writing from one girl. I still have a copy somewhere. A dystopian tale set in a bleak black-and-white future. I can recite some of it to this day
  • Then there was the Y9 class who tormented me. I even remember punching a desk in rage (it was painful and rather pathetic – particularly as it did not make a sound). One girl in particular haunted me day and night; she made my life hell. I recently saw her from a distance in a local pub; it all came rushing back.
  • And last of all, my assiduous attempt to collate all my resources and planning on to CD ROMs. Ha, I thought, rubbing my novice hands together in glee, I will never need to plan again…

Oh, how wrong I was!

Before we move on, I’d like to remind you of – or introduce you to – the Greek tale of Sisyphus. As punishment from the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain. Once he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down again. For eternity, Sisyphus would roll that boulder to the top, only for it to roll down again and again and again. Futile labour, therefore, was a hideous punishment. It is too easy for us, as teachers, to go home in the evenings feeling like Sisyphus, feeling that our students have learnt little and that we could be teaching them in a more effective way.

How can we avoid our careers becoming like this? Could we realistically balance the rock on the mountain-top and in doing so become excellent teachers?

The first place we must look for help is our colleagues, our fellow ‘Sisyphi’ if you will. If others are finding strategies to balance the rock at the top, and have ways of sharing this with us, then we should learn from them. I think there are two ways we learn from our colleagues, the ‘hard way’ and the ‘soft way’.

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.43.39

The hard way is unavoidable; it is part of the CPD package provided by our schools. It can be useful and necessary. More importantly, I’d like to talk about the soft way – it’s much more exciting. However, there are plenty of softer ways we can take the bull by the horns and do it for ourselves: observing colleagues, attending Teach Meets, videoing ourselves in action, reading blogs and educational literature and perhaps joining Twitter amongst other things.

For me, the last one on the list, awareness, has been so key – and it’s easy too. Listen and watch carefully the teachers around you admire as they go about their daily business. How do they talk to students? How do they diffuse situations? How do they subtly assert themselves? Reflect and then consider how you can adjust, adapt and reconfigure the way you do the small things. Watch and learn, as they say. It’s simple, powerful and adds no time at all.

There is another place we can look for help in balancing Sisyphus’ rock. There are those who stand to one side observing, measuring, quantifying and computing. These are the educational researchers. They have some very interesting things to tell us about the excellent teacher, yet there often ignored in modern schools because of our unhealthy obsession with what we think Ofsted want.

Have a look here at the six characteristics of a great teacher from a student’s point of view, taken from John Corrigan’s Group 8 Education student voice research. (Via John Tomsett’s excellent blog).

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.44.09

Pretty obvious, and thankfully no mention of ‘differentiated learning objectives’ either. Maybe the possibility of balancing the rock is simpler than we imagine? Now take this synthesis of studies taken from Hattie and Yates’s wonderful Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn.

Expert teacher

Again, really useful, but also pretty self-evident and as we might expect. Yet how easy is it to get there?

Ultimately, I think, we are the masters of our own fate. If we are to improve and strive to be the best we can, we must take the lion’s share of the responsibility into our own hands. It is a well-repeated fact that after two or three years of teaching, most of us plateau – we reach a stage where we have overcome the initial difficulties and we make little meaningful improvement. You will need to face up to this yourselves.

One of the main ways to combat this is what is known as ‘deliberate practice’. Research agrees that to become an expert in a field we must practice it for 10,000 hours, or put another way, 3 to 4 hours a day over a 10 year period. However, this is not as easy as it seems. We need to identify areas for improvement just out of reach, strive to upgrade our performance, monitor our progress and revise accordingly. In other words, if we are struggling in class with our questioning or our explanations, for instance, we must consciously focus on as we are teaching, not just through our reflections. This is not as easy as it sounds. Through repeated practice we can embed unwanted skills as well as desirable skills, hence why our practice must be tightly and relentlessly focused on improvement.

You may have wondered why I am using Sisyphus and his boulder as an allusion today. In fact, it is part of my personal deliberate practice – to improve the way I explain myself in lessons by using stories and allusions to help students remember what I have told them. Even pronouncing Sisyphus correctly, as you might have noticed, has been a stretch!

Another way is, of course, through the reflective process. For me, thinking back over what has happened in the classroom and then adapting and modifying my approach is vital. There is no shame in teaching a bad lesson; it is how it informs future lessons that matters.

Last of all is ‘awareness’ again, this time in terms of what is happening around us. I have yet to meet the teacher who can perfectly predict how every event in the classroom will play out – over time we do gain a kind of sixth-sight built up from experience, but it can never be perfect. Teaching happens in the moment and we must be alive to the unscripted nature of the classroom and be prepared to act. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

This year I have set up a blog to record some of my reflections; I find it has made a huge difference by making my reflections sharper. It is also an exciting way to connect with teachers in this country and beyond. I know that I am no expert, but I would like to leave you with five tips. As with all advice, you will need to make them work for you, in your classroom, with your students – who are possibly very different from mine.

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.44.49

Consider the use of time. Is the strategy I am planning to use worth the effort I am putting in? It is probably apocryphal but it is said that we spend more hours of our lives on the toilet than we do at school. If we are going to make time in the classroom count, we need to become more focussed. Our children only have once chance at school; we only have one life. A balance must be struck so that we work reasonable hours on useful tasks that genuinely make a difference.

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Put the long-term first, rather than the short term. I’ve spent too long in my career chasing that elusive ‘outstanding’ lesson judgement. Trust me, they are barely worth the paper they are written on. It’s easy to get kids to perform on the day, but very hard to get them to learn in the long term. Think of the weeks, months and years ahead.

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.44.59

We are often told that great lessons must contain a pick’n’mix of the following: carefully worded learning objectives, individualised learning for each student, an engaging learning ‘hook’, 15 different tasks, a competitive element, books full of red teacher feedback, carousel tasks, group work, pair work, the teacher dressed up as Mary Poppins…(although you won’t find many ‘spoonfuls of sugar’ in my classroom!). You could find these in a fine lesson, I am sure, but equally you could find them all in an awful lesson. To my mind, even though it is essential to understand and employ a wide range of teaching strategies, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Never forget that sometimes we can be just as effective by simply telling students what we need them to learn. My hunch is that subject content is often more important than how we deliver it.

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.45.05

I know I have said it before but the reflection process is so vital. I often say to my classes: ‘thinking is working’. It is so true for us too. What those not in education do not realise is that our minds never switch off. Sometimes it feels almost impossible to turn our minds from ‘teacherly’ thoughts and as such reflection is both our greatest friend and our worst enemy.

Screenshot 2014-04-03 21.45.11

Learn to love failure. There is no such thing as perfection in this job. Have a look at the statement above from Dylan Wiliam, the esteemed education writer.

Teaching is tough and rewarding, both intellectual and creative. We need to daily combine – on a Monday morning too – the determination of the marathon runner with the artistry of Van Gogh. This really is the toughest profession in the world.

So, let’s consider the original question: can we ever overcome Sisyphus’ plight? The answer is… probably not. Yet, for me, even though a truly excellent teacher can set the rock in place for hours at a time, it will not – and should not – stay put. When it does eventually come thundering down, we ascend the mountain the next time a little bit wiser than we did before. And that is the fun of the job.

My final words are simple. Let’s celebrate both our successes and our failures. Perfection is impossible, but doing a great job is not.

Enjoy Easter and the enjoy the rest of your careers.

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If you have got here and you are still reading, I am sure you would love this post from Shaun Allison about a truly great teacherMr Clarke.

10 thoughts on “Becoming an excellent teacher: can we rewrite the myth of Sisyphus?

  1. Pingback: Becoming an excellent teacher: can we rewrite t...

  2. Good story, and for me the best advise is the reflective practice combined with the advise to love failure. In reflection I have lots to love and do so all the time

  3. Great post Andy! Teaching is an art and we are on journey that has ebbs and flows… extreme ups and down… and each time we climb that mountain we are wiser, as you wrote. Our journey of learning never ends… much like our students!

  4. Pingback: Few Stops for Reflection | Ubuntu

  5. Pingback: Aspire to be a great teacher … not a perfect one. | Ubuntu

  6. Pingback: Keeping it simple in 2015 | Reflecting English

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