This post was written at the behest of Rory Gallagher (@EddieKayshun) who assured me that some people might find it interesting to know a little more about my background. He has persuaded all sorts of fascinating teachers to share their stories on his marvellous Who I Am, What I Do site. I recommend you check it out.
My experience of school was troubled. It took me a long time to get over it.
Apparently, my mother took me out of school for several months at the age of seven in order to teach me to read. My primary school had written me off as ‘educationally subnormal’. She used the Janet and John reading scheme. I loathed it and saw reading as a punishment. But slowly I started to get it. Once I’d mastered the mechanics, she would start reading me a chapter of The Famous Five and then trail off mid sentence… Out of sheer frustration with her appalling ability to read aloud I would grab the book and finish it to find out what happened next. I never looked back.
After devouring the entirety of Blyton’s oeuvre, I moved on to CS Lewis and from there to Tolkien. My father possessed an enviable collection of classic sci-fi and I worked my way through Asimov, Heinlein and Poul Anderson. I joined my local library and would take home a carrier bag full of books every week. I was insatiable.
I’d hesitate to describe myself as anything so grandiose as an autodidact, but really, very little of what I know was learned at school. I was in the first cohort to take GCSEs but predated the National Curriculum and Ofsted. As far as I can work out, there wasn’t much teacher accountability; if students did poorly, that was their fault. Consequently very few teachers seemed unduly concerned about my education. My history teacher taught the wrong syllabus, and no one noticed until we all failed the exam! I decided early on that I would rather not try than feel stupid in maths; geography seemed an endless succession of slag heaps and blast furnaces; RE (I went to a Catholic school) mainly consisted of watching anti-abortion videos; PE lessons involved random sequences of undeserved and capricious cruelty; chemistry was all about squirting pipettes of hydrochloric acid at each other; my physics teacher routinely failed to recognise me, and woodwork and metalwork consisted of hiding the teachers’ tools, sword fighting with chisels and throwing equipment in the forge. As a sensitive flower I enjoyed art, drama and English but have only the haziest memories of what we actually did. (We had a weekly Creative Writing lesson in which I spent a whole year writing an Icelandic saga and Mr Haydon, to my certain knowledge, never once looked at it.)
My behaviour was not good, and I truanted for the greater part of my third year at secondary school and would (I kid you not) spend my days in Birmingham Central Library, reading. Nobody ever commented or complained.
In my fourth year I had the great good fortune to have Mr Birch as my English teacher. He was physically terrifying; a giant of a man with a huge spade beard and size 14 Doc Martens. He saw something in me and nurtured it. In return I loved him. He taught me two really important things: how to enjoy poetry and how to spell. He had massively high expectations of me and refused to listen to my excuses. He was always interested in what I wrote, always encouraged me to read widely and was the only teacher to ever point out that February had two Rs in it.
But English lessons were an oasis. The rest of my school experience was lackluster to say the least. I left school in 1988 with 3 GCSEs (English language, English literature and French) and no desire to continue my education. I drifted into working in a record shop on the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). Aged 16, I left home and endured what we shall call the wilderness years. I learned at lot during this time, and undertook all sorts of jobs including selling mobile telephones, labouring on building sites and working behind bars (the public kind.)
During this period I did manage to study Classical Studies A level. I asked the foreman on my building site if I could have the afternoon off to sit the exam and the next morning I was treated with new respect. Clearly, sitting an A level was evidence that I was set for greater things. It was therefore entirely natural that I was promoted from general dogsbody to engineer’s mate. This was a great job; I got to paint little yellow lines on girders and manoeuvre the theodolite.
A few years later I was bored and found myself enrolling at night school to study English Literature. Everything I loved about English at school all came rushing back. We read Pride And Prejudice, King Lear, The Tempest, Bond’s Lear, Hare’s Racing Demon and few others I’ve since forgotten. The teacher was wonderful and recognised in me someone who wanted to study. She showed an interest in my writing, and persuaded me to apply to university.
Sadly, I still wasn’t really ready and wasted too much of my first two years of my English degree with drunkenness and debauchery. Things finally came together in my final year and I ended up with a 2:1 and the knowledge that I could write a half way decent essay.
My decision to train as a teacher was an aimless one; I had no idea what else to do but knew that working in a call centre was no way to spend one’s days. No one breezes through a PGCE but I came close. The lectures and seminars were a series of missed opportunities and confused nonsense. I jumped through the hoops but learned almost nothing useful. One of my school based mentors advised me not to worry about objectives saying, “Oh I just add those in at the end when I’ve planned all the activities.” I got my QTS but had no idea what I was doing.
When I started my career as teacher I was rubbish. Really. Those early years are nought but a source of shame. I failed often and hugely. If I’d qualified today I’d probably have been drummed out of the profession in short order. But, for some strange quixotic reason I persevered and got a little less appalling. The turning point was joining a school which promptly went in to Special Measures (a coincidence I assure you.) I learned an awful lot. Some of it even useful. Certainly I became a better teacher. I latched on to every passing fad or gimmick as if my job depended on it. This was a successful strategy. My teaching was lauded as ‘outstanding’; I was promoted and led a very successful English department before joining the ranks of senior leadership. But I really knew astonishingly little about education.
In 2010 I joined Twitter. Hesitantly at first, but with increasing confidence. I started my blog in 2011 in an attempt to remember some of the insights and ideas I’d get in the classroom. Little by little I began to infer that some of what I thought to be true might well be wrong, and some of what I did might actually be unhelpful. I came to understand that the way I’d been taught to approach teaching was based on certain assumptions about learning which may not be true. Some of these orthodoxies run deep in our education system:
- Teachers should minimise the time they spend talking in class and particularly avoid whole class teaching
- Good lessons must involve children learning in groups with minimal intervention from the teacher
- Children should always be active; being passive is a sure sign they’re not learning.
- Children must make rapid and sustain progress every lesson
- Lessons must always be fun, relevant to children’s experiences and differentiated so that no one would have to struggle with a difficult concept.
And just to be on the safe side, inspectors would punish schools and teachers who didn’t teach this way. Because not teaching this way meant that you were a bad teacher.
Deep down I knew that much of what I was doing was shallow, short term and trivial; surely, it’s wrong that I could train a barely literate child to get a C grade? But this was what the system demanded and I was good at it.
So I did what I’ve always done: I read. The following books & papers trace how my understanding and awareness has developed:
July 2011 – John Hattie, Visible Learning
November 2011 – Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?
December 2011 – Graham Nuthall, The Hidden Lives of Learners
July 2012 – ED Hirsch Jr, The Knowledge Deficit
February 2013 – various papers by Robert A Bjork but this is a good start
August 2013 – Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education
As my views have evolved, I’ve become less and less comfortable with the status quo. It’s led me to question many of the foundations on which my assumption about teaching and education were founded: AfL, feedback, lesson grading and the entire concept of ‘outstanding’ teaching.
I’ve had a lot of opportunities as a result of blogging. Jackie Beere asked me to write The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson and I was invited to become an Associate of Independent Thinking. I’ve gotten to travel round the country and visit some amazing schools. I went part time and set myself up as a freelance trainer and consultant in 2013. I found that much as I loved teaching, I enjoyed this work even more.
Since the beginning of 2014 I’ve been entirely self-employed. I am beholden to no one and can do and say pretty much what I like. It’s scary not to know what the future holds, but it’s exhilarating too. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Ofsted, speak at high-profile education events and generally make a nuisance of myself. I love what I do, and don’t for a minute miss the deadlines, the stress, the workload of being a teacher.
I was asked recently to provide a potted biography of myself for an event I’ll be speaking at. This is what I came up with:
David used to be a teacher but has recently turned to the dark side; he likes to describe himself as a provocateur but really he’s just a consultant, albeit a high risk one. He’s written some books, and blogs compulsively and in tedious detail about the minutiae of teaching and education. Some people seem to enjoy it, which he has taken for encouragement. He’s mainly interested in questioning assumptions and trying to unpick other people’s hard work.
This is all tremendous fun, but it makes me nervous too. I worry that not working in a school for too long will mean I lose credibility. Ideally, I’d like to teach for one or two days a week, but I can’t really see that anyone would really want to employ me in that sort of capacity. I mean, I wouldn’t. I suspect I might be considered too high-profile, too unpredictable and too outspoken to be ‘just a teacher’. But then again, I’ve been wrong before.
You can also find out What I Think.