Get back on the horse

06 Dec

I want to talk you through the disastrous teaching interview I had this week. Firstly, it might give you a laugh. Secondly, it might give you an insight into what it’s like to be a teacher, or to try and become one. And thirdly, it explains something about what it’s like to be a grown-up and to try and work out whether you really can change or not.

It began badly. I had loads of things to get ready but no time to get them ready in the classroom (you usually have five or so minutes to set it up) so I had to try and sort out some unifix cubes and a powerpoint presentation on an unfamiliar whiteboard, in a classroom I’d never been in before, while children were just sitting round, bored, chatting to each other. No one was in charge of them. I had to get things ready for my lesson. The observing teachers just sat at the back and watched. Five minutes of murmuring agony while I tried to get it all ready.

You have to get children quiet after a period like that. So once I was ready I do something that I always do, I counted down from three to one and said something like “Eyes on me please”. At the dozens of schools I work in, this usually works pretty rapidly. Other teachers recommend clapping to a rhythm or shaking a musical instrument, but I’ve tried that and not found it particularly effective. I do counting down. Anyway, this was what happened: no one went quiet, they just carried on.

You have a sense of impending doom sometimes. But you have to try and be positive. I was actually feeling really good about the lesson I’d prepared because I’d had some really good advice from a teacher who’d done the exact same thing in their class of the same age group recently, and had good results. So I knew what I was doing. And yet, the worries began. Still, I tried my best authoritative teacher voice, cheerful and bright, and tried again. No. And again. Finally. Most children quiet. You start praising the ones who are doing the right thing, as I’ve been taught to do, so that they set a good example. You’re not supposed to do much negative talk, it should all be positive and full of praise for good choices. That’s what I was doing. I was clinging on.

Four or five children just totally ignoring me. Now, I’ve been in classes where there’s one or two, who’ve got serious issues especially around new adults, and you learn to accept that as a supply teacher, but so many just couldn’t give a shit about what I was trying to teach. No eye contact, no nothing. They just wanted to fiddle with whatever they had in front of them – silly me, I’d decided to be brave and use “concrete manipulatives” which were instantly transformed into toys – rather than look at me. I was drowning. It was the worst.

You carry on, because you have to try. We play a game, which about half the class take part in and the rest just gaze out of the window. I later discover that they had had a 45-minute maths lesson with the previous interviewee two minutes before I came into the room, which might explain it a bit, but not enough. I’m sinking fast.

You ask the easiest of easy questions just to get them going. What do you know about multiplication? Talk to your partner! OK, what did we say, hands up! (Three or four hands lazily trickle into the sky) “Adding”. And you think ok, repeated adding is multiplication, I know that, this is fine, so you ask a little more – using open questions and being cheerful and excited and happy – and, no, it turns out they really meant adding, just once. Fuck. The one easy question that was guaranteed to get this going has holed the ship below the water line. We’re going down.

The two observers, who of course are going to be smiley and cheerful to me later, scribble away on their sheets. One day, I say to myself, I will observe you, I’ll sit in judgement on you… but not today.

We move on. Pace, pace, pace. Always keep the pace up! Never slow down. Never be sluggish, always be moving on. We use whiteboards; the kids just draw on them. We use our “concrete manipulatives”; it doesn’t work. We use partner talk; they don’t talk to each other. This whole thing is a disaster already. I feel like giving up, and we’re five minutes in. We’re doomed.

I carry on. Independent work happens, or rather doesn’t. Almost no one understands what they’re trying to do, even though I’ve modelled it and modelled it and modelled it and asked if anyone has any questions, and asked them to show me on thumbs or smiley faces how confident they are. One boy puts his head down on the table and refuses to work. The observing teachers, sensing blood, find the least interested children they can notice and ask them about the lesson.

I keep going. One child throws himself down onto the floor on a bean bag and refuses to get up. There is no one to help me. I have a choice of dealing with him or trying to work with a group, so probably wrongly I decide to deal with him and eventually he gets back up and works, albeit at something he doesn’t really get. A small victory. But the work I’ve set, for an average class at this year group, is actually well beyond this class, and there’s no way of simplifying it now.

Then there’s a plenary, carried out in almost entire mumbling. I’ve lost the class, I know it, they know it, everyone knows it, the observers know it, and we all want it to be over. I finish off. The teacher observers are all smiles and nice and take me through to another room where I pointlessly go through two hours of written interview tasks that might as well have gone straight in the bin.

This is probably the worst it has got, but it’s not an isolated case. Most people I know who are teachers managed two or three interviews at most before they got a job. Not me. This keeps happening. On the rare occasions when I’ve had outstanding lesson observations in interviews, I haven’t got the job for other reasons – wrong answers to questions, not having enough experience, not having glowing enough references, and so on – and that’s that. That was interview number twenty three. I don’t think 24 or 25 or 26 is going to be any better. And it’s not that way because I think negatively about it; it’s that way because it’s that way.

I teach in a lot of schools. About fifty or sixty since I began. I see a lot of motivational style prompts and posters around classrooms that are aimed to try and improve what we call “learning skills” – basically, the ways that you learn and how you learn about learning. Most are genuinely lovely things, and they encourage a kind of risk-taking, playful, bold approach to learning that helps develop a heuristic approach to life. “Mistakes are just steps on the journey” or “If you’re struggling, that means you haven’t given up” or “If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll always get the same result”. And so on and so on. It’s kind, inspiring, hopeful.

Except, there’s a problem. I keep finding that, while trying to teach children all about these wonderful ideas – that if you keep making mistakes it only helps you learn, that if you get things wrong it’s OK, that if you try different things it’s going to make things better for you – these things don’t really apply to my adult life. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to my teaching career, which lurches and stumbles from one disaster to another. My mistakes don’t seem to make me better, they just make me feel bad. And when you’re an adult, it’s not seen as another step on the learning journey, it’s “Can’t you do this yet? Everyone else can!” The feedback I get is contradictory, and doesn’t work. I try to change, I try to adjust, but if you teach a lesson one way for one school, it’ll be wrong at the next school. Until eventually you start thinking, it’s not the teaching, is it. It’s me.

I’ve had enough “friendly” chats to try and “help” me. One head teacher said “Well, you’d probably do really well at other schools, but not this one. It’s you. You aren’t friendly. The children don’t like you.” At another school: “It’s you. The children like you too much, you’re a nice person, but you need to be tougher.” At another: “Maybe you should take a break for a couple of years, and then maybe not go back into teaching.” At another: “You’re just a quiet little man and you just sit there thinking you’re better than everyone and that’s what you think the pupils in your class should be like.” At another: “I think you’re never going to be a teacher because I don’t like you, and if I don’t like you, no one will.” At another: “You just don’t look like a teacher.” I listen and I learn.

I teach for three main reasons: firstly, because there still is, somewhere in me, a flickering hope that I can do some good. Secondly, because I need the money. And thirdly, because I used to think I would be good at it. I don’t think that anymore. I just think I can try my best, and try to learn, but whatever happens, it doesn’t seem to work. I am burnt out and finished. I slap on a fake smile for the kids but I worry they can see through it. Every moment is slowly crushing me.

It doesn’t help that supply teaching is the most impossible, thankless thing in the world, but even so. It isn’t working. When you reach that place where you know, you know. And I know.

1 Comment

Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Uncategorized


One response to “Get back on the horse

  1. metatone

    December 6, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Tough just to read it, must have been gruesome to go through.

    One of the worst parts of “adulthood” is the requirement to continue with something that is plainly doomed, because that’s what “professionals” do. Those extra hours of written interview remind me of similar situations where I called it “barbed wire being scraped across my heart.”

    Out of curiosity, what age were the kids?

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve being “short contract” university level teaching for a couple of years now. One thing I’d say to commiserate is that the dirty secret of teaching is that some days the kids are just not up for it. And it’s nothing to do with you – it could be the change of the clocks knocking off bedtime, the last two sessions tiring them out, the phase of the moon. (The fact that these kids had just had to be guinea pigs for a 45 min maths teacher interview is very suggestive.) Oh, and throw in the trouble that occurs when you’re expecting kids who have a certain level of skills/knowledge, but they don’t. That can kill morale and engagement swiftly.

    Anyway, whatever it is, the net result is that you are going to have a bad session. This is esp. true when you (as we all try to) use modern techniques involving activities, interactivity etc. because those need more commitment from the kids. And I know this to be true because I know two lecturers (my wife & then a good friend) who I can cheerfully admit are naturally much better at teaching than I am. And they too still have these bad days sometimes.

    One of the hardest parts of teaching is this fact, because not only is it not easy to decide if it’s true in any particular case of a bad day we’ve had, but it’s also not something anyone in teaching or training or observing or interviewing will admit publicly. That’s why I call it the “dirty secret.”

    My own experiences with Observers and Academic Deans etc. is that they all subscribe to the talk about lesson planning and interactivity and concrete manipulation and independent learning, but they too often don’t do anything to support it. And as someone who is an introvert and not really a room-dominating personality I find they are often hankering for some TED style inspiration and often a bit of aggressive discipline, rather than all the things they talk the talk about…


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