On not being an expert A level teacher

“Apparently you are the expert at teaching A level,” said a colleague, by way of an Hello. “I’ve been told I’ve got to observe you.” As auspicious starts of the day go, I’ve had better. Even so, I am the assistant head for staff development, and I do teach a lot of A level at the moment, so I’m not in a position to say No. Quick as a flash, I get all developmental and say, “Sure, any time. What will your particular focus be?” Relieved as I am that she does not have one (I don’t fancy laying on a demonstration), the very fact is an indicator that this is a teacher who does not really know how to improve.

I am not the expert at teaching A level. My subject knowledge is often insecure (I teach History, where my grasp of late tsarism is tenuous; and Politics, where every year I have to remind myself of the functioning of the Single Transferable Vote.) I differentiate far too haphazardly. I do foolish things like demand essays from three groups all for the same week. I do do some things well. I can make the learning seem interesting, I can build students’ confidence so they work independently, and – somehow – my students often achieve good grades and go on to further study. If my colleague had picked up on my reputation, it will probably have been for those things.

But, latterly, I have actually been getting better. Two examples from the past week will serve here.

A2 Politics – Study on Global Politics. The textbook has some undergrad level material on the nature of power: hard, soft, relational, structural, smart. This is demanding at a conceptual level, and the students need also to refer to theoretical schools and draw in real-world examples. I set them some pre-reading tasks, which they are good at complying with. I felt I needed a memorable starter for their first lesson on the topic. Well, it was obvious: a wrestling competition. The 4 girls and 2 boys fought a knockout (my ‘risk assessment’ did not allow for the fact that two of them had broken their wrists in the previous year), leaving two finalists. At each round, I asked them to consider their relative power. The finalists decided they needn’t wrestle for a winner, as they were content to reside in a bi-polar world, where they were the hegemons. Clever!  Niall said, ‘I can’t believe we are doing this.’ But they did, and during the following lesson they demonstrated how well they had learned. I wanted them to co-create an essay on Has the US attained smart power? I created 24 cards with keywords, people and exemplar events on them, and reminders like ‘Using proper Topic Sentences’ and ‘Reaching a reasoned conclusion’; the students then negotiated a lay-out which would reflect their essay plan, mindful also of the need for clearly signposted paragraphing. The debated different classic approaches, such as the some arguments for / some arguments against balance, but settled on a more sophisticated division of the case. Without any prompting, they made sure each was happy with the decision and secure in their understanding of it. They proffered and sifted through events which could illustrate their points, and demanded extra blank cards from me so they could record these. As they are a small group, my preparation was just one set of cards; for all but 15 minutes of the lesson, they did all of the talking, all of the work. I just sat back and thought What an ‘expert’ A level teacher am I?

AS History – essay feedback. We had been studying Alexander III as a ‘repressive autocrat’, focusing on his use of the Okhrana, suppresion of political rivals and the role of his ministers. We had earlier been working on how to communicate in writing to maximum effect, and I had set this is a priority success criteria, deliberately limiting the number of separate points I wanted them to make. My theory is: if I want them to improve their literacy, it’s best to make the content easy. The results were disappointing, and I found myself taking hours over marking and setting targets. Whereas in the past (and, in teaching, I have a long past) I would have simply handed these back, barked a little, and hoped for better next time, now I realise there needs to be a closer correlation between the time taken to mark and the time given to students in class to actually act on feedback. To my shame, this practice is an innovation to me. The large majority of my comments featured introductions, conclusions, topic sentences and a highlighting technique we call foregrounding. So, for 5 minutes at the top of the next lesson I demonstrated how they could improve these features by sharing some success criteria for each. After that the lesson was largely taken up with them re-writing individual sentences, selecting more appropriate words and placing them to greater effect, and re-configuring their introductions. My role was limited to circulating to respond to their new efforts.

This was the lesson my colleague chose to watch. There was certainly nothing showy about it, but I have learned that students readily engage when given a chance to redraft, so long as they can see how and aren’t made to feel daft. My colleague doesn’t seem to have learned this yet, and she left soon after the students started on their reworking. She stayed for the wrong bit: she thought she was there to watch me, because I am ‘an expert’. She should have stayed to watch the students – the true experts.