This article was first published, in a slightly different form, on the Guardian Teacher Network
Is there such a thing as the perfect lesson or the perfect teacher? Well, no, probably not. At least, not that I’m aware of. There is no magic bullet that can turn us into amazing teachers overnight; being outstanding is not, I think, a matter of charismatic delivery. It’s about hard work and effort. It’s about thorough planning based on sound assessment for learning. And it’s about consistently being there and having high expectations of, and belief in, the kids in front of you.
I consider myself to be a good teacher who is capable of delivering an outstanding lesson with a fair trailing wind and if I’ve had a good night’s sleep. Like me, you’ve probably taught some shoddy lessons along the way of which you were immediately and rightly ashamed. The temptation is to nail these horrors into lead-lined coffins and bury them in twisted graveyards of memory. But there’s gold in them thar hills.
I’ve certainly had my share of failures. I’m a risk taker by nature and am constantly experimenting with new and exciting ways of tricking my students into learning. Sometime these risks pay off. And sometimes they explode spectacularly, showering me with shredded pieces of singed lesson plan. I’d like to think that these failures have all impacted positively on the students I teach. Maybe not straightway, but they serve as a useful reminder of, “That time sir tried to use kites to teach us about sentence structure.” (This still makes me groan with remembered shame.)
After twelve years of teaching , these failures are increasingly few and far between. In the average week, I’ll own up to delivering a couple of satisfactory efforts amongst the mainly good lessons I preside over. The outstanding lessons are (and I hope for a couple every week) either the product of inspiration and as surprising to me as they are to my students, or meticulously planned.
It is this latter instance of the well-planned, competently delivered lesson in which students seems to make amazing leaps and bounds that I’m interested in dissecting. If you’ve not yet experienced one of these perfect moments in your teaching career, stick with it. You will. And when it happens, you’ll probably be shaking your head and wondering what it was that worked so well.
I’ve tried to bottle the lighting of an outstanding lesson on many occasions and guess what? It doesn’t work. The only thing, in my experience, which offers any kind of cast iron guarantee of an outstanding lesson, is a thorough knowledge of, and an excellent relationship with, your class. If you know what they know you almost can’t help but help them make progress.
Sound simple? It is. But it ain’t easy.
Easy be damned. I hate the word as I hate hell, all Ofsted inspectors and SEAL!
You see, it is my firm and unswerving belief that every teacher can be outstanding. All it takes is belief and hard graft. One without the other might result in drudgery or delusion, but the two together can make the most dithering, diffident practitioner a potential master of the universe. I’m not kidding! Anyone can become outstanding. Obviously, some teachers aren’t going to believe this and others won’t put in the required work. But for those that do believe and are prepared to sweat blood I would point you in the direction of Samuel Beckett’s wonderful words of wisdom:
I have this quotation emblazoned on my classroom wall to remind my students, as well as myself, that it is the effort to excel that matters. Who cares that it didn’t work this time? Who cares that we got the answer “wrong”? As longs as we dust ourselves off and try again we can be sure whilst we may not succeed we will certainly fail better.
Perfection may not be possible. Certainly not every day. But until they replace us with bioengineered robo-pedagogues, we need to remember that it is the striving to be our best which marks us out as the outstanding teachers our students deserve. Determined reflection and a relentless pursuit of perfection will always pay dividends.
For those willing to believe and work hard, I would point you in the direction of my new book, the cheekily titled Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson.