Everyone knows that feelings of inadequacy are not helpful in the classroom. As soon as the tears start to roll, the learning stops. And the teaching too, because feeling inadequate is just as destructive of teachers’ ability to perform as it is of children’s.
It is depressingly easy to make a new teacher feel inadequate: one reason surely that around 40 per cent of us leave within the first five years of qualifying, according to Ofsted. Workload is the major issue of course, but combine a huge burden of work with the feeling that you don’t know how to do it properly and the result is … nail-biting anxiety, sleepless nights and finally, for many, departures for pastures less demoralising.
Here is just one example of the ease with which a new teacher can be forced to reach for the tissues. Recently I went on a reading course linked to the new curriculum. All was going swimmingly until, towards the end of the day, the trainer mentioned spelling – an area given a starring role in the new English curriculum. Now I had been feeling confident about spelling, courtesy of a respected website that has created weekly word lists, including rules, for each year group. It’s true that some of its choices are a little eccentric – ‘nondescript’ and ‘cohabit’ are not the words I would pick to teach eight-year-olds about prefixes – but never mind. At least I had one area of the curriculum sorted.
Foolish thought! Suddenly, I hear the reading course trainer say ‘spelling lists’ and realise that he’s laughing. ‘You see,’ he says, chortling away, ‘spelling lists really don’t work. The children learn those 10 or 12 words but then they never use them again and so they’re forgotten. It just isn’t a good way to teach spelling. A much better way is to teach them is …’
Well, that was it. Feelings of inadequacy again. I’ve been teaching spelling badly; the children will fail their Sats spelling test and we will all sit in the classroom with the tears rolling.
On this occasion though, feelings of inadequacy were overtaken by ones of annoyance. If there is a magic recipe for spelling success, why is it a secret? Surely acquiring this knowledge shouldn’t depend on the random choice of a CPD course?
This doesn’t just apply to spelling of course, but to all areas of the curriculum. Why am I endlessly reinventing the wheel, clumsily and misshapenly, when out there somewhere is someone who knows how it ought to be done?
Finding that mystery expert should not have to rely on anxious trawls of the internet late at night while the bags grow long under the eyes. The web is an invaluable tool and the teachers who donate their lessons for free are generous, public-spirited people. But is downloading Ms Who-ever-you-are’s second-hand lessons really the way to ensure the best possible learning experience for children? After all, while much online content is excellent, quite a lot is shoddy, ill-thought-out and, occasionally, just plain wrong.
Nor should finding the mystery expert depend on dawn raids on school cupboards sifting through piles of commercial schemes in search of whatever is that day’s holy grail. Be it a guide to teaching division using a number line or how to take those first steps in programming, it must deliver its message in an engaging, efficient and easy-for-Miss-to-understand way. Many commercial schemes do just that, but quite a few are ill-conceived, out-of-date and, occasionally, just plain wrong. Hence the warning about snake oil vendors in CPR’s evidence to the Gove national curriculum review.
Of course, not so long ago, new teachers did not have to search for the needle in the curriculum haystack. They were given sewing machines in the form of the primary national strategies. As the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review points out (p 417), this suited us newbies because the strategies were ‘all about rules and this is precisely what novice professionals are more likely to need’. But the Review went on to say (p 307) that the strategies’ bid for total control of what and how teachers taught may have helped those who were newly-qualified or insecure but it wasn’t right for mature professionals with the knowledge and experience to make their own decisions, especially as government prescription was not necessarily better founded than what was available commercially. Hence CPRT’s insistence on the need for ‘a pedagogy of repertoire, rigour, evidence and principle, rather than mere compliance’.
Yet is it outrageous or unprofessional to suggest that new teachers would benefit from a reliable source of expert guidance on what to teach and how best to teach it? Just because the national strategies fell into disrepute, becoming inflexible and monolithic monsters, does that mean we abandon all idea of helping our floundering novices, most of whom have had a mere year’s training?
With standards to be ratcheted up, the pressures on teachers can only increase – as, I fear, will the proportion that leaves within five years of qualifying. One way to tempt them to stay would be to ease the daily burden of having to invent oddly shaped wheels to bump around their classrooms.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She was one of the authors of the Cambridge Primary Review final report.
In pursuit of CPRT Priority 7, quoted above by Stephanie (‘Develop a pedagogy of repertoire, rigour, evidence and principle, rather than mere compliance’), CPRT has commissioned two new research reviews to extend and update the evidence on pedagogy provided by CPR. One is on children’s learning, the other on teaching. It is hoped that both will be published next term. CPRT has also embarked on a major project, supported by the Educational Endowment Foundation, on using dialogic teaching to increase engagement and improve educational outcomes among disadvantaged children. More generally, CPRT is working with Pearson, its lead sponsor, to develop CPD programmes which are professionally helpful and based on secure evidence.
CALLING ALL NQTs. We would like to hear from other recently-qualified primary teachers about the kind of support they need in their first year or two of teaching and the extent to which their needs are met. Please let us know, either publicly by commenting on Stephanie’s blog below, or in confidence by emailing us. This information will help us to take forward CPRT’s professional development programme with Pearson and will also be valuable to those planning the activities of our regional networks.