As an NQT, I'd await my GCSE class with bated breath. Dawn had a regressive disorder and forgot things as quickly as they were taught ("It just fell out of my head,” she'd say, bewildered); Simon had severe learning difficulties and, when I called his name, cocked an ear like the German Shepherd he'd allegedly been raised alongside. Jordan was a rising star in the brutal world of Thai kickboxing; he might not have been able to spell 'egg' or 'bacon' when taking sandwich orders on work experience but apparently he was very, very good at violence. Happy-go-lucky Leon went to far-right rallies at the weekend with his dad, fired up on Stella and xenophobic chants. They reminded me of the Bash Street Kids except my Toots, Spotty, Smiffy and Plug had a darker side. A couple had been on social workers' books for most of their short lives; many of them, to use Ofsted's trusty yardstick of social deprivation, received free school meals.
And me, their dedicated teacher? Why, I was a bastion of inspiration! Ahem. Not quite. Mainly it was hard. There were battles of wills and batterings of egos. There was Jordan arriving late one day, putting his head down on the desk and announcing wearily, 'Don't you f***ing start' before I could open my mouth. There was me begging Leon to 'TURN AROUND' and another boy chipping in with an operatic 'briiiiiiiight eyyyyyyyes' Bonnie Tyler would be proud of. There was some leaping on tables, but not prompted by poetic inspiration - rather, a wasp drifted unwittingly in through the window and pandemonium erupted.
Did I mention it was hard? Harder than a nanotechnology PhD or scraping dried-on porridge off a bowl, i.e. really, really hard. And so I referred desperately to the trusty teaching manual of the time - The Teacher’s Toolkit by Paul Ginnis - with limited success. It seemed the rules didn’t apply to 10B4. Confusingly, a new strategy would work one day and backfire spectacularly the next.
I was following good, sound, ‘proven’ teaching techniques: why wasn’t it working? I confided in fellow NQTs and wailed to my mentor. I locked myself in the staff toilet for a therapeutic cry. I observed other teachers and marvelled at the pockets of learning magic they created. The penny finally dropped when I realised that good teaching wasn’t about slavishly adhering to someone else’s ideology, but about using knowledge and experience of a group of students to confidently tread an intuitive line. It meant being consistent alongside some well-judged flexibility. It was about being fully present in the classroom and using every nugget of information available from the weather forecast to what was on the canteen menu that day in order to gauge what would work. Tentatively, I started to trust my judgement. I deployed whizzy stuff - felt-tip pens, cultural hooks, tiered lesson objectives, electronic tickers and timers, music, whiteboards, bite-sized chunks - but built in ‘down time’, easy-on-the-brain tasks, deviations from The Plan as appropriate. And, very gradually, the occasions where I felt like an abject failure were outnumbered by those where I felt I was effectively managing tough students.
The recent hype about the latest How to Teach tome, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0, got me thinking about those heady NQT days. I even bought a copy, despite my aversion to the chest-beating machismo of the title. Sucked in by Lemov’s impressive credentials, I diligently studied and tried some of the techniques. My first discovery? They weren’t so different to tips my battle-scarred NQT colleagues shared over a decade ago, except Lemov’s strategies made use of snappy alliterative titles and mnemonics. The emperor’s new pedagogical clothes? Perhaps.
And then I hit upon the same problem that strikes whenever I try to apply some reading to the reality of a classroom: ironically, given the emphasis Lemov places on presence, I actually find myself less present than when I’m trusting my own intuition. His ‘champion tips’ were honking in the back of my mind like a car alarm, distracting from the real business of responding to the students in front of me.
The good news? Teaching is undoubtedly a craft and, fortunately, a refineable one, otherwise those toilet cubicle tears may have signalled the end. The bad news? Unlike what many of Lemov’s devotees imply, books don’t hold all of the answers. I’m yet to find the most valuable lessons I learned in my NQT year - how to spot a student texting under the desk from twenty paces, how to know when someone is genuinely desperate for the toilet as opposed to wanting to make vigorous wanker signs at another classroom window - in a handbook. That comes with experience, intuition and guts. Teaching books have their (limited) place. However, I like to think of them as the equivalent of the driving theory test or an antenatal course: valuable preparation but, as any parent who’s been up all night with a screaming newborn or new driver who’s found themselves doing an elaborate fifteen-point turn knows, very definitely not the real thing.