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Back-to-School Nightmares and The Last Supper

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Sun, September 02, 2018 15:43:17
No matter how long you've been on this side of the desk (almost 20 years for me), the back-to-school nerves never seem to go away.

It's completely inexplicable. I like my job very much, I have a good work-life balance and I know for a fact that the second I set foot in the classroom, all will be right with the world. I don't recall having a terrible first class with any group, certainly not since my training days; yet without fail, at the end of every summer, the feeling returns.

Over the years I have learnt to manage the process more effectively. I accept that it will be difficult to sleep the night before our return, so I stock up on an over-the-counter sleep remedy, which helps. After one awful year when I was plagued by horrendous anxiety-related gut cramps, I also watch what I eat and drink and am careful not to overload on food or on alcohol on the couple of nights before term starts; it's just a little bit too easy, past experience has taught me, to enjoy the Last Supper only to end up paying for it in agony.

The last few nights of the summer holiday are often visited by anxiety dreams. For me, these tend to take the form of the nightmare class that won't be quiet. Again, this is something that I do not expect to happen in reality but clearly the anxiety is there. Other colleagues have reported classic anxiety dreams involving lateness to work and (my personal favourite) being so late for a school trip that it was absolutely essential to leave home immediately and get behind the wheel of the school minibus completely naked; there was simply no time to get dressed, apparently.

My family and non-teaching friends find the nerves surprising and to some extent concerning. In truth, they are neither. For I know from others that my experience is not uncommon. As I settle into bed on the last night before the new academic year rolls around, teachers like me across the whole country will be lying awake.

There is comfort in that solidarity.

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Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 2

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 23, 2018 17:30:44
Chapter 2 of Making Every Lesson Count focuses on explanation and starts with an arresting challenge: just how much quality concrete information do students learn from research-based group tasks compared to teacher explanation? This really resonated with me - it's very easy to be dazzled by the "buzz" that these kinds of lessons commonly used in the Humanities can create in a classroom; as the authors put it, students "have enjoyed the lesson - but how many have learnt anything at a deep level?"

The authors address the inescapable fact that teacher explanation has received a bad press in recent educational theory, as the advice in teacher training has moved consistently away from the "chalk and talk" model. All that guff about being a "guide on the side" instead of a "sage on the stage". Well, you know what? Sometimes the kids need a sage. The authors look closely at the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that teacher-led instruction is actually A Good Thing. They then briefly explore the methodology of how to make your explanations comprehensible and memorable.

Pleasingly, the authors move swiftly onto the importance of building blocks and dispelling misconceptions; they emphasise the key principle that lessons should always build upon prior learning, each building upon the last and addressing problems that may have become apparent in the students' work.

The authors really put the boot in when it comes to everyone's favourite sport of "guess what's inside the teacher's head", a game which we've all ended up guilty of playing in a desperate bid to keep our lessons interactive and question-based. The truth, of course, is that this is a seriously pointless way of approaching things. Their sound criticisms of this and similar methods has made me reflect again on the Cambridge Latin Course, which is based on the principle that students miraculously work out what's going on by observing it; anyone that's tried to teach like this knows that students need a huge amount of guidance to get there and sometimes - frankly - it's pointless. Just tell them, for God's sake, before we all lose the will to live.

In their defence of teacher explanation, the authors are never in danger of encouraging a static or dull classroom environment. They advocate storytelling and bringing the classroom to life. They conclude the chapter with some interesting reflections on why teacher explanation has been so overlooked in professional development, as well as a salutary reminder that poor explanations which fail to achieve student engagement will always remain one of the worst ways to teach.

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Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 23, 2018 14:17:18
Well after a sleepless night and a morning of feeling thoroughly queasy, the new GCSE results are in.

I could not be more thrilled! My cohort of 20 Latinists worked so hard and ended up with fantastic results. Four 9s, seven 8s, seven 7s and two 6s. On top of all that, I have also heard that my private candidate gained a grade 7!

The best news, though, is that the vast majority of my students met or exceeded their target grade, indeed 50% of these results were higher than their official target. My students rock!

Congratulations to each and every one of them, who worked incredibly hard to achieve phenomenal results.

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Waiting for GCSE Results

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Wed, August 22, 2018 15:17:45
Last night I had my first teaching-related anxiety dream of the late Summer. It was the usual scenario, repeated many times over many years; however experienced you become, they never go away for good. What is the usual scenario? A class that won't be quiet. That age-old problem. Sometimes, I've woken myself up shouting. It's not a good look!

So why last night? It doesn't take a genius to work it out: we are on the countdown to GCSE results day. In less than 24 hours' time the results will be there, in black and white, for better or worse, for all to see. This year is, of course, a particular watershed moment for schools with the first full cohort entering the new GCSE across most subjects. For the first time I will be running my finger down a list of numbers rather than a list of letters; for the first time in quite a few years, I have no real sense of surety as to where those indicators will settle and whether they will reflect my predictions with any kind of consistency or fairness.

I hope with all my heart that our students don't know just how much we worry about them. It is not their job to fret on our behalf; it is their job to do their very best and our job to help them. But on days like this, the night before the final judgement is shared, it is hard not to feel the ponderous weight of responsibility. Did I prepare them well enough? Did I coach them clearly? Did I give them the skills and the knowledge that they need to realise their potential?

This year I was blessed with a wonderful group of students. All I can do now is hope that all their hard work is rewarded and that my next blog post will be bursting with joy.

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Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 1

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Tue, August 14, 2018 09:20:51
My school has asked us to read Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, completing chapter 1 by the start of term. So far, it's been an absolute pleasure.

I find it hard to recall and distil information without doing something with it, so I have decided to blog as I read.

The first chapter addresses challenge and the fact that "all too often challenge is presented in the context of 'challenging the most able'" rather than with the mindset that all students should be engaged in "healthy struggle". This has certainly been my experience; happily, this culture is shifting.

The ludicrous expectations placed on classroom teachers to differentiate for every child are addressed: "we believe that much that is promoted as good differentiation practice is both unmanageable and counterproductive: it is not humanly possible to personalise planning for each and every child, nor, as often suggested, is it possible to create three levels of worksheet for every lesson."

Hallelujah! We've all known this for some time, but it's jolly nice to read it in a volume that my Senior Leadership Team has advised me to read! The chapter focuses on the value of "sharing excellence" with students as a method of support, modelling and demonstrating to them what excellence looks like. It also states the truth that one can differentiate much more simply by outcome.

The importance of subject knowledge in exposing students to content pitched above or beyond national expectations is emphasised. Pleasingly, the authors strike a balance between championing the importance of rich, challenging curriculum content and the importance of excellent teaching, stating the inescapable truth that "hard content is harder to teach". The authors talk about "the long haul" and advise that not every lesson should be challenging - for our own sake and for the students.

The chapter is refreshingly practical but it does draw on other research, most notably Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset and work done by The Sutton Trust on motivating students through content.

Chapter 1 has been a thought-provoking and pleasurable read; I look forward to the rest of the book!

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