Where I’ve failed as a teacher by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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This post has been sparked off by Rachel Jones@rlj1981 who blogged on the topic of ‘pontificating about pedagogy’ in July 2013. Her post headline, “Show me the money” was an excellent article; one I wholeheartedly agree with. As a result, I have decided to share her sentiments and elaborate on the mistakes ‘I have made as a teacher’.

In this article, I plan to express how and where I have failed throughout my teaching career. For once, a noble article that is not intended to stir publicity or controversy. Just promote, simple honesty.

I’m a failure!

I hope to discuss where I’ve let my students down, as well as the students I have not taught directly. This will also include the colleagues I’ve worked with and of course, myself … I hope that by doing this, it may encourage you to share some of the following:

  • mistakes as a classroom teacher,
  • mistakes as a subject leader,
  • mistakes as a head of faculty,
  • mistakes as a senior teacher.
  • mistakes as a headteacher (but not for me at the moment).

An intended outcome, is that this review may bring about a small change and shift in attitude with myself, taking time to reflect, but also encourage my online pedagogical community to consider doing the same. Wouldn’t it be great, if we could all share what didn’t work more often? Or the moments in our career, where we took our eyes off the target and lowered our heads?

Fetish pedagogy -
Fetish pedagogy – “I am no saint.”

Fetish Pedagogy:

The key messages I have taken away from Rachel’s post are highlighted throughout my own revelations that follow. I do hope that it serves as a catalyst for others to consider the same pontifications, knowing that you are not alone, and that we can learn and share from being more honest and open.

From the outset, Rachel declares “a culture of fetishistic pedagogy”, and that “teaching and learning blogs far outweigh those that consider other educational issues”. She is absolutely justified. Almost all of the blogs I read, consider teaching and learning to the umpteenth degree and propel a range of issues to the widest circumference; but few offer real solutions.

Disappointingly, I do not think or expect to offer any real solution here, but I’m going to have a real crack at it, by initiating the debate.

DebateI have a list of my favourite blogs that I regularly dip in and out of; and many other blogs that I read, based on my own professional learning network. One would assume, that these generate an immense wealth of experience, dialogue and practicality for teachers across the world. Of course, they do, and the statistics on the websites speak for themselves. These blogs (bloggers) have shaped me; but at best, I can only think or 1 or 2 (names withheld) that I can recall, that often blog honestly – sharing their failings – and offering ‘real’ solutions for the classroom teacher.

What Rachel goes on to describe, is how many blogposts “offer no resolution to the issues, but simply fuel the fire of debate”. I have witnessed this very recently with @AfLPie and @LearningSpy sharing an excellent, online tête-a-tete, regarding assessment for learning and posing arguments for and against AfL; others include the wonderful and reflective BlogSync archives, curated by @Edutronic_Net; and of course @OldAndrewUK, who simply has a pop at anyone and everything, but also brings a good argument to the table.

I am no saint. I have created articles too, to fuel the fire, as well as stir commotion. But what ‘good’ does that have for anyone looking for help and a practical solution to improve their teaching practice; or to help them through unjust capability, or a tricky year 9 lesson on a wet-Wednesday afternoon in January?

No solution?
Any solution? Who can tell me how you are breaking down barriers to learning?

Tell me how?

However, as Rachel goes on to say:

“Improving teachers, who have never seen a grade one (Outstanding) at observation, can still have real impact by showing they care to pupils who need this very basic interaction … holistic teachers are often found running clubs and societies, going above and beyond what is expected of them. These are teachers, whose learners can wait to help at open evenings, or other events, because their teachers have made them feel part of a community.

A great many … of our learners live complex, troubled lives … they struggle on into school, carrying a great weight on very small shoulders. This is the same in schools across the country, and creates … many barriers to learning. I would have the utmost respect for any blogger who can tell me how you are breaking down these barriers.”

And that was the impetus for my response. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get writing about failing!


How many rock star teachers are there?

To quote Rachel once more; “I don’t want to always see grand theories of learning. I want to read about what keeps us humble. The mistakes you have made, those kids you couldn’t reach and how will you work harder so that this doesn’t happen again. Let’s be reflective. That doesn’t mean just reporting successes; this means telling your nurturing, teaching community that you tried something, and … it didn’t work.”

So, Rachel, this is for you, me and all the other teachers out there who need to read and hear: that we all do make mistakes and that some of our grandest ideas may not work; and on occasion, despite our vested interests, not every child will warm to our style of teaching.

Here are my failings, with all the ‘ego’ disconnected.

Where I’ve failed as a teacher:

I’ve never considered myself to be an intellectual teacher, nor a sophisticated leader. And (perhaps) like some readers, looking back earlier on into my career, I wanted ‘to be liked’ as a teacher. This desire to be liked is common for any human-being and with hindsight, I was often found dumbstruck, scratching my head when an 11-year-old student, didn’t quite get ‘who I am’ or ‘my lesson’ style.

Growing up as a young man and a classroom teacher, I tried all sorts of remedies to counteract the balance. I’m no great lesson planner, but I found myself brimming full of (the wrong) ideas. Reverse psychology; my authority as a classroom teacher; my physical being and the teacher-tools I unleashed on students at a whim, for the sake of ‘winning the argument’ … But, it took 4 or 5 years of solid classroom teaching (2 as a middle leader) before I realised, that this was an imperfect ideology to go after and one that commanded no respect from any student, parent or colleague.

One of my most treasured memories as a developing teacher, was my second ever tutor group who I supported for 5 years, between 2000 to 2005. They are all grown up 25 year-olds now, and in my heart of hearts, I still feel a special bond for them. What I do know now, is that they may not have the same impressions for me; and that they will all be getting on, living life to the full, growing up and establishing their careers and families. They were a great bunch of students; a full spectrum of talent and ability, but equally bursting with educational needs; disproportion and starting points. They may not recollect any magical moments from Mr. McGill’s teachings and unbeknown to me, their memory may be one that is full of bullish and haphazard behaviour … However, I did email a few of them today and received 2 replies in time for me to share them (unedited) here:

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I appreciate the list below may be too generic, and equally unacceptable; but, I hope that it may highlight what can happen during a busy teaching timetable, or on those days, when you just aren’t up to scratch. Without the desire to raise my ego again, I do want to state, that these examples ‘have happened, but are far from frequent practice’.

What a failure!
What a failure!

Failing my students:

  • The vulnerable: not spending enough energy on students who were at risk of exclusion.
  • Bullying: encouraging the class to identify disruptive students to make my job easier!
  • No man is an island: promoting my own counter-productive systems, isolated from main school systems.
  • Text book: boring (bloody boring) copying exercises during lessons.
  • Empty-promises: motivating with incentives and failing to deliver the goods.
  • Teaching: to the text-book and examination.
  • Observations: ticking the boxes and jumping the hoops.
  • Misguided: idle homework for the sake of setting something; leading to gaps in knowledge.

Failing other students:

  • Sanctions: needless detentions.
  • Praise: failing to interact and encourage a community ethos.
  • Ethos: ignoring poor corridor and playground behaviour.
  • Communication: writing condescending letters.
  • Staff room: sitting in the staff room when I could have watch the year 9’s win the Middlesex trophy.

Failing as a middle leader:

  • Departmental meetings: the occasional ‘it’s my way or the highway’ attitude.
  • Classroom displays: ‘I’m leading by example, but why aren’t you?’ stare.
  • Busy corridors: turning my back, or taking a sharp left or right through the nearest door.
  • Deadlines: ill-thought through dates and some, created to keep teachers and students on their toes!
  • Mundane: getting stuck in a rut with routine and failing to intervene with my own and others’ practice.
  • Emotional: responses by email, when a simple face-to-face conversation would have re-built bridges.
  • The list could go on here…

Failing as a senior teacher:

  • Follow-up: revisiting a student or teacher to ensure an incident has been totally resolved and supporting both parties through to a suitable and amicable decision.
  • Tiredness: turning up late to work.
  • Gossip: ignoring staff who speak with resent and are misguided.
  • Contact home: just not picking up the phone.
  • Deadlines: misuse and excuse.
  • Professionalism: failing to action poor behaviour of staff, who bring the school into disrepute.
  • Leadership: failing to challenge a contentious issue at senior leadership meetings.
  • I had hope ‘this list’ would be smaller, but I could still go on! …
  • Updated: Arranged an observation and forgotten to turn up. This will never happen again!

Lessons learnt:

So, some of the solutions I have self-discovered along the way:

  • To commit as many mistakes as you want, but not to commit the same mistake twice.
  • We cannot do everything. We have our limits and failings and most of all, spreading ourselves thin for the sake of pleasing those around you, will do nobody, including yourself, any favours.
  • Another valuable lesson I have learnt, is learning to say a polite ‘no thanks’. One we should all grasp quickly. For the additional roles and responsibilities that are beyond your day-to-day remit, do all you can to improve yourself and support your students and the school, but choose wisely. I now make little or no ‘promises’ to my students. However, I have now understood what it means to deliver, and this can be something as simple as supporting a member of staff, or planning and teaching a bloody good lesson to fuel students with inspiration for your subject.
  • So, in the absence of promises, I ensure students are aware of my own expectations of myself, so that there are no stones unturned and that they can keep me in check when I go wayward in the classroom.
  • Make sure you are 100% ready for promotion and all that is expected of you.
  • As a school leader, it is imperative to maintain an incredibly high and consistent standard of professionalism. This means, in and out of the classroom; at school events and online, far away from the realms of work.

How do I break barriers to learning?

  • Plan carefully.
  • Plan thoughtfully.
  • Listen.
  • Listen some more …
  • Make time for students and then-some.
  • Build relationships with parents.
  • Always, always, always go the extra mile.
  • If you cannot do it, ask someone who can help.
  • Praise staff in public.
  • Challenge staff in private.
  • Follow through all incidents to the nth degree.
  • If you sign up to collegiality in a senior leadership team, you do everything you can, to uphold this.

I am far from perfect, but I can sum this entire post up in one sentence for you Rachel. If I make a mistake, I will ask how I can make it better, and I will ensure it never happens again.

There, I’ve said it.

23 thoughts on “Where I’ve failed as a teacher by @TeacherToolkit

  1. “Improving teachers, who have never seen a grade one (Outstanding) at observation, can still have real impact by showing they care to pupils who need this very basic interaction … holistic teachers are often found running clubs and societies, going above and beyond what is expected of them. These are teachers, whose learners can wait to help at open evenings, or other events, because their teachers have made them feel part of a community.”

    The quotation from Rachel doesn’t sit well with me I’m afraid. So every teacher who isn’t ‘outstanding’ can still make an impact by making up for it outside of the classroom? Teachers who have never managed to satisfy the criteria for an ‘oustanding’ in an observation still have an absolutely huge impact on their students and their progress throughout their school lives. I’m just starting my NQT year, and although I’m aspiring to be outstanding (why I read your blog and have pre-ordered your book), but I dislike the idea that ‘good’ does not actually mean good anymore. By definition, we can’t all be ‘outstanding’.

    1. Mark, for me, consistently good is outstanding, but this is not what this post is about. The article (I hope) should be highlighting that we all make mistakes as a teacher, and that we should be more open and honest about recognising this for each other. It shouldn’t be a case of capability or outstanding. It’s human nature.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Ross. Yes, your post is clearly about that, and as someone just starting it’s good to hear that it’s okay to make mistakes from someone like yourself.

  2. Refreshing and inspirational, a joy to read and reflect on! Headings that might find their way into my shiny diary, another list which I will vow not to extend but revisit often to keep it real as they say!!!!!!!!!!!
    Reading which would be a forerunner for my ‘food for thought’ part of staff meetings! No expectation for public debate, prompts to reflect!!!!!!! Brill!

  3. I have had many failures, after all I have been teaching for 25 years. However, as a reflective teacher blogger I aim to reflect not to offer solutions.
    I get nervous and lack confidence in formal observations. I have NEVER achieved an Outstanding but I still give wholeheartedly to the community – does that mean I am a failure?

    1. Hi Andy. The post – from my point of view – is not about Outstanding teaching; it’s about teaching practice in general and given the barrage of pressures, I share the countless mistakes I have made, that we all have. Yet, afraid to share publicly for fear of repercussion, I know I do not teach Outstanding lessons everyday, having just written #100Ideas for Outstanding Lessons! How ironic, yet honest.

  4. This is great to see! And it’s why we go to the pub on Friday…

    I think we can’t ask of students what we can’t ask of ourselves and each other. If we expect them to self-assess, admit what they are struggling with, recognise what they need to do to improve, and do it without fear of derision, then we need to lead by example.

    Every teacher struggles, fails and gets overwhelmed at some stage. Add in extra responsibilities and actually having a life as well, and it seems ridiculous not to expect this more regularly than it actually appears to happen. Solutions need to come from the top: it needs to be ok to say to your HOD, SLT line manager and Headteacher that the intention was there but it didn’t quite happen. And here’s how I’m going to fix it.

    More importantly, it needs to be ok as that HOD, SLT line manager or Headteacher to say this yourself. Otherwise the culture is fear and not progress, and classroom teachers turn into the student who nods and panics and feels utterly isolated. It’s no fun teaching in a school like that. It’s liberating to work in a school where the culture is collaboration: it’s where real T&L progress happens.

    I would contribute my failings, but the list is long and I have to finish this SOW tonight as I have left it to the last minute and have already broken my new-school-year resolution number 753: no over-commmiting yourself so that you spend all weekend at your laptop! (Gloss over resolution number 754: stop going on twitter and getting sidelined when doing your planning….)

    Bravo this blog.

  5. I totally agree with you and admire your honesty. It is difficult not to beat ourselves up about our own failures, especially when it comes to not reaching every student. However I love the expression that failure is just a serious of unsuccessful attempts. We teach students that failing is not a problem but a life lesson which makes us stronger and less likely to make the same mistakes, but, I wonder, do we believe this for ourselves. I know I often feel deflated when I can’t achieve what I want to, but I do search for ways to remedy it. In the end, though, we are only human, with all the successes and failures that brings, what makes a difference is, as you say, trying to find solutions and showing you do care. I must remind myself of this more often!!

  6. Great blog Ross and needed. It strikes me that twitter can be a bit like those staffrooms where you go in having had a disastrous lesson and sharing it to be told that “really? they are fine for me! ” . The best staff I ever worked with in a very challenging school you could share your successes with without feeling you were blowing your own trumpet , but also your failings to get empathy, not some smug response! Lets support each other

  7. Pingback: Could we be failing our top performing students? | Neil Atkin
  8. This is an interesting post but perhaps still too general to achieve the goals you set yourself. If the aim is to improve practice by discussing failure in depth (which is what you seem to be arguing) then I would say this post doesn’t quite do that. Instead, it establishes a series of aphorisms about failure in practice rather than why specific failures occurred in specific activities and what might work better. I’d be very interested in seeing this broad idea develop further to discuss detailed discussion of failure with regards to specific classroom activities. This would be deliberative practice in its purest form and similar to what champion chess players do (a model in school teacher education should consider experimenting with). This would probably be difficult to structure in blog format though, and perhaps a more conventional website would be more efficient for this purpose. Thank you very much for your post.

    1. Hi Ryan. Thanks for your feedback. I agree with your comments. It is a fine line between sharing detailed information about where and whom I have failed, without creating further repercussions for myself, others and the students and schools I work with. I have tried to carefully ‘generalise’ where I have failed with simple examples, without going into the details. For each one, I could write a blogpost in itself… which is food for thought. Thanks.

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