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The contemporary world of schools induces contrary emotions. Some days I’m a grumpy old man: other days I have wings on my heels.
A former colleague, a much respected headteacher, summed it up when I recently visited his school. “School’s great. The kids are great. The staff are great, but when I deal with the higher echelons I wish I were retired.”
Like him, I’ve been mixing too much with the higher echelons but recently I had a wonderful privilege. I was asked to help supervise Post-Graduate Diploma in Education students while they were on placement in schools. I visited nine schools and observed nine young teachers-to-be.
I saw the very best of Curriculum for Excellence in practice, both among current teachers and from the students. Active, cooperative learning, investigation, debate and discussion, were apparent in every classroom. Even if the core content of English (my subject and theirs) remains not greatly changed since the days when I was a student teacher, the methods have been revolutionised.
The concept of the teacher as the authority and expert who poured knowledge into the empty jars has disappeared. Knowledge is built on existing knowledge. Understanding flows not from passive listening but from doubting, debating, questioning and interacting with what is taught.
In that context, the old die-hards would suggest that maintaining order and good discipline would be impossible, yet these teachers-in-training managed with aplomb. They had barely been in the schools a fortnight yet they had, to a person, become familiar with the young people in their classes, knew their strengths, weaknesses and interests; knew who needed support and who needed left to work alone. Relationships, warm, humane and respectful, were at the core of their developing practice. The result was high quality classroom management.
Their success however was universally predicated on sound planning and preparation. Every lesson was considered, both as an individual event and as part of a process. The learning intentions were clear and related to the over-arching experiences and outcomes of CfE as it applied to English and to Literacy. Their support materials, You Tube clips, quizzes, film excerpts, all illustrated and added to the objectives of the lessons.
They also however reviewed every lesson with care, reflected on the experience and attempted to learn how better to deliver the next lesson. Self-evaluation is the norm and, to some extent at least, my role as an external reviewer was less critical in these young professionals’ development, than their own critique of everything they did.
What I saw was not entirely new. My experience in the last decade of my full-time career was similar: the new cohorts joining the teaching profession come with skills and attitudes far superior to those of my generation of teachers. We assumed that command of our particular subject field was sufficient. We assumed (and were soon disabused) that being a teacher automatically earned authority. When we faced hard classes or found lessons which did not work, our only strategy was to ask the older and more experienced colleagues for advice and support.
Ours was a professional generation in transition. We questioned the old orthodoxies. We abandoned deference and corporal punishment almost simultaneously. We had to design and introduce a comprehensive system and a new curriculum on the hoof. We did a better job than some have suggested.
The hope for the future is this new generation of teachers. If they can add a smidgen of our rebellious chutzpah to their discipline, reflection and preparedness, my colleague will be even more justified in insisting that “School’s great. The kids are great. The staff are great.”
The above article appeared in SecEd, May 1, 2014:

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