In MGM’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Dorothy (Judy Garland) enters the lion’s den of a dream world where trees talk, monkeys fly and wizards are not what they seem. At every turn she is caught out, tricked, imprisoned and, at one point, drugged.
When I work with groups of Newly Qualified Teachers I always like to ask if any of them have been advised to ‘not smile until Christmas’. To my amazement, many still put up their hands. A brief discussion ensues and we quickly realise that this particular pearl of wisdom is limp, lame and the ultimate in weak engagement strategies. One of the greatest tools in our teacher armoury is our ability to smile. Children are drawn into the safety and warmth of a smile; they can be disarmed by it. ‘A smile confuses an approaching frown’, the saying goes. And it’s true. The great thing is you (hopefully) don’t have to go on a course about smiling and it’s the easiest addition to a teacher’s human armoury – that invisible sack that every professional leader of learning walks about with, adding to at every opportunity.
The NQTs in my anecdote here are those who wish to be more creative in their practice. They want to take risks and do more memorable activities with their students. These are all really admirable aspirations, but if the humanity is lacking then the creativity is stunted. If they lack the courage, the heart or the ability to connect on a human level with young people, then the creative agenda in their classrooms will falter. Simply put, it’s about rapport. Julie Starr in her excellent book ‘The Coaching Manual’ (2007) defines rapport as ‘...the dance behind communication..’. Successful teachers, who place creativity at the centre of their practice, have learned these steps and are well positioned to guide those newer to the profession, but only to a point. All teachers need to learn the steps themselves, and every class, every child, is different, thus needing a constantly evolving repertoire of dance steps.
Rapport in this sense exists within us all. We all have the ability to switch it on – how else do we manage our personal friendships away from school? The thing is, some people are just better at rapport than others. As teachers we have a responsibility to foster reasonable relationships with children that encourage creativity, aspiration and progression. It would be nice to believe that children see us as role models, but that’s a tricky prospect when we spend our time screaming at them. Isn’t it? The old TV campaigns ran with “Everyone remembers a good teacher” – but do they? When sitting to write this article, the good teachers I remember from school were the ones who managed to communicate botheredness. As a pupil I wanted to see my teacher’s botheredness in action, in front of my eyes. I hardly ever appreciated the hours a teacher would put into preparation, but I did when it unfolded before me in the form of a good lesson and that feeling of being enveloped in authentic care. The botheredness could be said to be that place where passion for one’s subject, thorough planning, communicated expectations and rapport all meet and create this sense of authentic care.
When I work with teachers on building relationships with their students I ask them to ‘hook on their wing mirrors’ in order to truly reflect on their practice. When observing teaching, it’s startling how many teachers undermine their thorough preparations by modelling the behaviours we try so hard to curtail in our pupils. Negative teacher behaviour such as unnecessary shouting, rhetorical sarcasm and active non-listening, simply reinforce and build upon the barriers that already necessarily exist between teachers and students. This is not about being pally, over friendly or steeped in the glorious declaration of ‘Hi kids! Call me Dom! I’m here to jazz up your Drama!’ Rather, it’s about establishing a wavelength with the young people with whom we work. Wavelength can underpin good class rapport even though sometimes you might have to just put it on. My Y9 Drama class were difficult to settle until I realised all I needed to do was match their interest in football. They would walk into my desk-less room and talk to me about football and I would join in. My knowledge of Barnsley FC improved and they learned a lot about Man City (some of it made up as I’m no aficionado – my Dad took me to see them back in the seventies). This matching of interests at the opening of a lesson when children are rolling in can make our lessons start better and enable heightened engagement as we have displayed that botheredness I mentioned earlier.
Academics, thinkers and wizards could actually call this TALKING TO CHILDREN. It happens in Primary, so what happens at Secondary? We only see them for an hour a week. We may know their names by April. We just about remember who their form tutor is. But what we want is engagement, human response, discipline and so on. Don’t we? Have we told the young people what we expect? I don’t mean that awful first week of term in September lesson where we get them to copy out the rules of the classroom/subject et al and then set a homework to back the book*. No, what I am talking about is the establishing of expectations. This is a vital part of a teacher’s human armoury – the ability to co-construct expectations with children. This often happens at the start of a year but can actually happen at any time. My question to you (yes you, with the wing mirrors on) is ‘Do your children know what you expect of them?’ If they don’t, don’t you think they should? Everyone’s life would be that bit simpler after all. Here are some obvious ones:
· I expect you to be your best self in my classroom
· I expect you to respect each other
· I expect to provide interesting lessons for you and you will even have fun. Sometimes.
Celebrate and share expectations. Get a WALL OF SUCCESS where you can highlight the successes of your young people; get pictures of them learning and put them up on the wall. Point the pictures out to them if they stray or disappoint:
“Jordan. Look at you here on the WALL OF SUCCESS working hard and thinking hard to solve the dilemma. You can do it! So stop poking Simon and get on with it.”
If creativity in the classroom is our goal, then we need to tap into this simple stuff. If we want to use Mantle of the Expert or Philosophy for Children, we need to ensure our climates for learning are right. Botheredness, wavelength and rapport point us in the right direction and have the ability to enable to us…well, teach.
A Maths NQT asked me recently how to make Maths more interesting. I suggested calculating how long a zombie virus outbreak in London, initially infecting 200 people an
hour (but rising by 39% every 15 minutes) would take to infect the good people of South Yorkshire. Now I’m hopeless at Maths but I know that it exists in that scenario and a better mathematician than I could exploit it further. The rapport and wavelength I’d cultivated all day with this NQT helped me convince him that this was a great idea even though I’d just made it up. I know for a fact he was going home to YouTube some zombie clips to scare his Y7s witless. The NQT wants to be creative and he will be, but he still needs to develop this humane armoury – his teacher persona, if you will – and exploit it with his classes. Even though they are pretty good skills to possess, I’m afraid it’s not enough anymore to have outstanding subject knowledge and brilliant preparation skills. Learners today need to be enthralled by, captured by, and lured by great learning opportunities. And they want it framed by someone who is truly leading the learning by effectively facilitating a human journey; someone who has a real grip on their practice, persona and who possesses an innate ability to take young people along with them down the Yellowbrick Road.
Dorothy got her friends the brains, the courage and the heart to become better citizens and even found the time to liberate an aspiring wizard and find her way home.
*why do we do this? Where’s the learning? What’s the point?