Written by Hywel Roberts (@Hywel_Roberts)
This is the first of a series of blog posts exploring each Design Principle in mine and Guy Claxton’s new book “Powering up Children“.
This blog post explores the first Design Principle, “setting the scene”, which explores creating a warm, safe and challenging learning environment. It is written by teacher, writer and storyteller, Hywel Roberts. Hywel was recently described as ‘..a world leader in enthusiasm’, making him a perfect candidate for this post! We are honoured that Hywel has written our first guest blog – thank you Hywel!
Susan was a languages teacher of whom the kids were frightened to death. She ran her class like a tightly-wound machine spring. When the timetable was released at the end of the summer, the holidays were quickly forgotten by nervous pupils realising which teacher they’d been given for French. They would look forlorn. Broken. Susan was a Terminator in the classroom. Cold. Calculated. All seeing. And I never saw her standing in her classroom, not once. Always seated at the front. Giving out death rays.
Out of class, Susan was a joy. Adult to adult, she was a wry joker and didn’t seem to have a care in the world. To me, a young teacher back then, she was a walking conundrum. She confused me because her approach, her stance, was the polar opposite of mine.
And yet, she got the results. And when the time came for her classes to leave, Interflora sold out. She did the business. She was, in the words of Oxford University academic Ian Menter, an effective teacher; a professional who could run a tight ship, perform the functions expected and, in my parlance, be steady away.
I could never be like Susan. Susan played the long game and there would be casualties along the way.
Susan retired fifteen years ago.
Times have changed. Ministers, think tanks and gurus have emerged and suddenly everything we need as classroom teachers is easily found online or in the last book your line manager has read. These are, in some ways, great times for the effective teacher, but, and this is the rub, there is a sense to me that the natural humane act of teaching has become corporate and mechanic, whilst that blood-pumping sense of professional teacher ownership over what goes on in a classroom is being gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) eroded. Even displays show evidence of being branded up by faceless money machines.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In my work as a Travelling Teacher I bear witness to much brilliant classroom practice that supersedes Menter’s baseline effective educator and replaces them with transformative teachers. Once again, in my parlance, this is the teacher who gets it: the teacher who doesn’t just swallow the research offered up online but behaves as the measured researcher themselves, investigating their own practice in their own setting. They are the teacher who knows the children in the room, but beyond that, they understand the context they’re working in and, indeed, are players within that community. They have a stance that looks out into the world from the point of view of the child they know.
The transformative teachers understand that children need protecting into learning – remember how you felt walking into your worst class as a child? Remember the nightmare it was? That’s because you weren’t protected in. When I teach Drama today, I know there will be children who LOVE it – the Glee Club Massive – , but I’ll also be acutely aware that for some children, the idea of doing Drama is horrific and makes their stomachs churn. How, as a teacher, are you easing that churn? This isn’t about dumbing down, rather, it is about supporting the children in the navigation of what they find difficult. The difficult skills. The difficult knowledge.
Susan didn’t protect children into French. If they couldn’t do it, they were metaphorically held down to their desks, their red faces flushed with frustration and anger. They didn’t want to go to France anyway. That’s what they would tell Tony, the whizz Head of Department, constantly mopping up the removed and broken from Susan’s class. She got a lot of flowers when she finished, but not from any of them.*
Chris is embarking on teaching ROMANS to his class. They are a great ragtag bunch of children and they clearly love him and his teaching assistant, Ros. I’ve found myself working with this class and I’m part of the team.
The following is a raw list of what I see this team do. This is what Chris, Ros and I talk A LOT about as we research into our respective practices:
We got ready for today when we were packing up yesterday.
Like bar workers, we ‘clean’ as we go.
We understand little Katie has all the parental support in the world and that Ashleigh, who shares her table, has none. There experience in the classroom is equitable by the temperature set by the adults. We need that, otherwise Ashleigh may well get lost, disenfranchised and distant
We exude botheredness^
Through botheredness, we can ensure that Katie can share her experiences of the family camper van trip up to Hadrian’s Wall and Ashleigh can ask questions about it and uncover a desire to want to know more. Instead of closing the gap, we are preventing it.
We shift our stance according to the content. For example, sometimes we need to just tell kids stuff which requires some dog-honest stand and deliver teaching. We need not be rooted to the spot however and should use the space to hold attention, develop engagement and nail down investment. Other times, the children.
Creativity is never chaos. We hold the locus of control whilst giving children the space to uncover new questions, new lines of inquiry and new knowledge
We know it’s not all high-fiving the kids and getting misty-eyed, but we do see ourselves as the gatekeepers to the world of the subject content we are walking the children through – the pedagogy is warm, and that warmth can spread across practice and curriculum. Warmth is infectious, especially when it’s established, modelled and maintained by the adults.
What we discovered was that working on the warmth in the class could actually be very business-like. We meant it. It frees children up to explore the highways of learning and it being okay that they spend times in cul-de-sacs. It also helps us as teachers to re-engage why we went into the job in the first place.
So, what’s your stance?
^ Botheredness isn’t a real word but we all know what it means. See ‘Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally’ (2012)
Hywel Roberts is a teacher, writer and storyteller. He writes Travelling Teacher stories for @tes.