Want students to learn? Here it is. September. And we’re in the thick of it already. Schools are propelling students forth at a frantic pace. The kids are getting jittery. The teachers are headstrong. And then there’s me, still teaching but not so fraught. Not yet anyway.
So yes, I shall go and say what you probably already know – ‘if you want your students to learn – we all need to be content’.
We need staff and students to be content – content doesn’t mean happy – it’s more stable than that.
Students must be calm, measured and able to think. That doesn’t come easily in certain environments where teachers are shouting at them.
And I know that’s hardly rocket science, but it needs affirmation.
And I feel I am now in a sufficiently objective place to state it.
Yes, I am still working in a school teaching English to small groups for their ‘intervention’. Of course, I also tutor English to students for KS3 English and their English GCSE preparation.
However, full time classroom teacher I am not. And this matters because I am now seeing what (perhaps) I once was – either recently or years ago in state sector.
Here are my three main observations which I believe lead to the best outcomes for students and staff.
1. Class sizes matter.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I haven’t read the myriad of reserach on class sizes. I am keenly aware that context is key and many factors influence learning outcomes aside from the student-teacher ratio.
Hattie has stated that a reduction in class size from thirty-five to twenty-five pupils only brings a small improvement and the teaching itself must change in relation to the numbers to have a great effect.
Sure. I concede context and pedagogy (teaching) are crucial. However, what we seem to be missing from our studies is the focus on what is arguably very important: the emotional side to teaching.
I assert that teaching is not purely an art or a science. Teaching is a mix of the ability to be many things to many people, whilst still imparting valuable subject knowledge.
In order to enthuse – one must know the audience and that means really knowing their students. This means knowing how they think, feel, respond and what is most likely to interest them.
I am not alleging that those teaching large class sizes do not do this. However, it is harder.
With forty-one students to one teacher (maybe more – I’ve read of cases of sixty students in a room!) – there will be days when that teacher is swamped with demands, decisions and tasks which will inevitably distance teacher from student(s) and (at least temporarily) impede their ability to engage with those students.
Lower the number of students in the room and you reduce the statistical probability of problems, whether they be: bad behaviour, misunderstandings or just too much noise to think. And yes, that does happen to adults too. Just pity the image of someone like me overwhelmed by the noise in the corridor at changeover time. Or worse still – me embarking on a trip to a packed shopping centre! Ekk!
With fewer students in the room. The chances are there will be less distractions and distance between individual teacher and student. This means teachers MAY find it easier to engage meaningfully with their students.
And this leads me to my second observation.
2. Connection – not a response – makes life better.
Again, I concede this sounds obvious. But if we draw upon the teachings of the likes of Brené Brown on ‘sympathy versus empathy’ (below) it is evident that ‘rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection’ and to get a connection – we need the time and space to know our students and to develop an understanding of them.
I’m lucky – I get to teach individual tutees. I get to really know them and I can tell when they’re anxious or having an ‘off’ day and I may tailor my lesson to that experience. Obviously this is because I care about them and I want them to be contented and rational – but I also want them to pass their English GCSE too – and we don’t get there with distressed people.
Think about it. Have you tried learning from someone you don’t like?
Think of a boss, colleague, ex partner or friend that has upset you. Would you engage with them to learn a new skill? I imagine you would not relish this idea.
Now try it in a subject you dislike and have actively not chosen (a core subject, like Maths) – how does it sound now? Almost impossible I’d say?
And if you disliked that person, or at the very least, you found them irksome or monotonous – wouldn’t you seek out someone else or at least avoid that dull person? No luck for students, they’re stuck in that class – at least for a year.
Most students (I’m happy to say) do not actively dislike their teachers, but sometimes, just sometimes on those terribly fraught, busy days I do notice things.
I notice very overwhelmed teachers inadvertently ‘screening out’ distraction and excess noise. Unfortunately, that ‘noise’ can sometimes mean a student enters the classroom without so much as a ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, or ‘hiya, how are you today?’
It’s not teacher meanness. It’s survival.
This survival instinct kicks in when your timetable is rammed, you have a stack of marking, endless meetings, a display to rearrange and your computer is so slow you cannot access basic functions like printing. This is reality.
Most teachers do care – but they must also survive. It is this survival which costs connection and there is an impact.
3. Measuring ‘connection’ in relation to student outcomes is almost impossible; yet the results are overwhelming.
A paradox I suppose. I have been / I am a cover supervisor, trainee teacher, qualified classroom teacher, learning support assistant, English interventionist and private tutor. All these roles involve varying numbers of students and stimuli at any one time.
However, clearly if parents are paying for their children to be privately tutored there must be something in it. Clearly 1-2-1 tutoring aids learning, there’s the time to ask questions and explore a subject in a level of detail one would not necessarily dare ask in a class full of other students, each with their own agenda and internal judgements.
But if it were just about ‘subject knowledge’ that wouldn’t explain the cases when I’ve had students turn up to me late in the year, facing their GCSE exam and stressing – wondering how they will pass. There is no way I would subject them to in depth subject knowledge without assuaging their fears and really finding out how they got to where they are and how I may calm them sufficiently such that they may learn.
I need my students to be content – not happy – but calm, rational and open to my teaching.
It really does help if they like me, but at least, if I am respectful and kind to them – I find the mutual consideration and liking usually follows. This must happen for them to learn. And it has. I’ve helped students to turn things around – even when they’ve come to me as late as March knowing little for that May/ June exam.
In order for students to learn and staff to be sane – we all need to be content.
We need the space, time and ability to connect with our students for them to learn; I doubt that is easy when too many demands drown out the connection.