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’.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hearts of darkness: another voice against graded observations

heart of darkness

Written in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s most well-known work, Heart of Darkness, tells the tale of Charles Marlow, an ivory transporter, and his colonial-era journey up the River Congo. Marlow becomes increasingly obsessed with the enigmatic Kurtz, the tyrannical ‘chief’ of a station up-river who has become a ‘god-like’ figure to the people he brutalizes.

In more recent years, Conrad’s story has been accused – rightly or wrongly – of racism. For me, however, the most famous line of the novella, immortalised too in Francis Ford Copolla’s Vietnam-era movie Apocalypse Now, comes as Kurtz is dying: “The horror, the horror.” Kurtz’s final words are ambiguous: the meaning is deliberately nebulous, leaving us to interpret for ourselves. My reading, however, has always been clear: that, like Conrad’s depiction of Western ‘civilisation’, there is a dark side to all of us. We must learn to stare this in the face before it is too late.

I am very aware that this is a very dramatic opening to a blog post on education and graded lesson observation! Please hear me out. Recently, I have read a spate of fantastic posts from the big-hitters of the blogosphere – David Didau, John Tomsett and Joe Kirby to name but three – all questioning the purpose of graded lesson observation and providing us with alternative options. It was further encouraging to read this week in David’s blog that (a) Ofsted are listening to educational bloggers and (b) that Ofsted have now ruled that individual lessons will not be graded during school inspections. The momentum is gaining weight.

This is all promising, but how does it relate to Conrad and Heart of Darkness? Well, my big concern with graded lesson observations is the way that they, and the associated culture, unwittingly encourage us to hide our own ‘horrors’. If we know we are to be graded, if we know that this grade might be directly linked to performance related pay, then, for many of us, lesson observation becomes about covering up our weaknesses – our ‘hearts of darkness’ you might say. (Sorry if that sounds a little grandiose!).

Over the last few years, I will admit, I have sought to achieve ‘outstanding’ in my lesson observations. On good days I have been graded such. Yet has there been a cost to this? Have I really worked out how to become a great teacher or have I just learnt to successfully cover over the cracks? Could, impossibly, my earnest attempts at ‘outstanding’ have hindered rather than helped my students? In the spirit of veracity, here are a few of the obfuscating strategies many of us employ in an attempt to hide our weaknesses:

  • Ensure that we are teaching something ‘easy’ and covering up the fact that we know the class are already quite good at this.
  • Warning the class that someone from SLT is coming in to watch them before the lesson and expects to see PERFECT behaviour.
  • Offering future ‘reward’ lessons for a particularly good lesson.
  • Changing schemes of work around to incorporate an ‘Ofsted’-style lesson, even if this is not what the class need. (This is the worst crime as students are losing out directly.)
  • Putting all other marking and planning to one side to micro-plan a lesson over about three days.

And the list goes on… You could legitimately argue that even without graded observations, the sly amongst us might still employ such tactics. It is natural, and good for professional development, to spend longer on planning a lesson than we normally would. However, I do believe that the removal of grades would dramatically alleviate the problem. Most importantly, I think schools need to grow cultures in which we are not afraid to discuss openly our weaknesses and foibles. I would like to be comfortable enough to invite my colleagues to see me teaching my most challenging class, who are learning the material I find most challenging to teach. Then, perhaps, the feedback would be more useful.

Once again, in the interests of honesty, here are what I perceive to be my main weaknesses:

  • Poorly planned and executed explanations. Too often I have to rely on heavily-scaffolded tasks to make up for the paucity of my verbal offerings.
  •  Questioning students too much – especially when I have not given them adequate knowledge to work on.
  • Moving around the classroom too much and too nervously.
  • Offering feedback too quickly.

This is the stuff I try to cover up in observations; I would, ideally, like more feedback on this. (I am going to finally work up the courage to video myself at some point this year as I know this will help me to address some of the concerns.)

There are a couple questions – addressed well in the posts I mentioned at the start – that schools do need to answer before moving away from graded lesson observations:

1)      How would under-performing teachers be identified and monitored in the absence of grades?

2)      What alternative methods would schools use to encourage and motivate teachers to aim for the best?

       Leaders like Shaun Allison are drawing attention to the ‘bright spots’. Shaun is blogging about the great stuff he sees in lessons – here and here for instance. This is inspiring leadership as it imbues a sense of positivity – if the good things are highlighted they surely will grow.

So here is another voice – a lesser one I’m sure – to add a tiny bit more strength to the argument that graded lesson observations can be damaging. The more voices the better. Now that Ofsted are not doing it, surely schools must follow suit? My vision of an education utopia is one where our ‘bright spots’ are celebrated, and one where, finally, we can also feel confident and secure in sharing – and ultimately defeating – our ‘hearts of darkness’.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from