Reflections on The Case Against Competition

Competition is a recipe for hostility. By definition, not everyone can win a contest. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that each child comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success. Forget fractions or home runs; this is the real lesson our children learn in a competitive environment.
-Alfie Kohn. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/nc288ej on 19 November 2016

As I sit here at Adelaide Airport after an excellent few days at FlipCon Adelaide with Jon Bergmann, Ken Bauer and many other fine educators, I thought it prudent to begin organising my reflections on the evening spent listening to Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) speak. There was a lot to take in that evening, with two sessions, The Case against Competition and The Homework Myth and I was left with a strong sense of cognitive dissonance as a result. As you read this article and the next, I would like you to consider your own philosophy about punishment and rewards.

I had heard of Alfie Kohn during my Initial teacher Education (ITE) during my first-year Sociology of Education and my second-year Classroom management courses. All that I could remember from then was that Alfie promoted a laissez-faire approach to classroom management, however, I could not remember anything that was discussed vis-à-vis his views on competition. Alfie opened by remarking that the best teachers do not talk, they let the students do the talking. He also noted that the best teachers also do not test and find another way of fulfilling their requirement to provide a grade

Rewards are as bad as punishments
Alfie Kohn

This statement was, for me at least, a very unexpected and odd remark. Fortunately, Alfie spoke about some of the research behind the comment. He commented that in studies that have been undertaken about the impacts of rewards, that on average they reveal that providing rewards to participants for completing a task or achieving a goal results in less success than those participants who are asked to complete the same task knowing that there is no reward. This is particularly the case in studies where the goal has been to quit smoking or to lose weight with one set of participants being offered a reward and the other set receiving no additional intervention. Two studies, he continued, show that being praised for characteristics such as generosity, niceness, sharing etc. actually results in the participants becoming less generous, less kind, less willing to share; that the reward tends to undermine the characteristic being praised.

Alfie then asked us to pair up and develop a hypothesis for why being praised for social characteristics has been shown to be counter-productive. When many people moved into groups of three or four, he commented at the end that he did not mind that we had not actually followed his instructions worked in pairs for the task; however, he added that he hopes we are as tolerant of our own students doing the same thing, a remark which elicited a smattering of slightly nervous laughter.

He commented that he is often asked questions along the lines of “but what about acknowledging rather than rewarding?” and that he sees that there are many ways of distinguishing between the two. I do not actually have any notes indicating what he said about that topic and I cannot recall whether that was because he made that comment and then moved on or if it was because I simply did not write anything down. Personally, I do not see that acknowledging a student’s effort or results can be the same as rewarding them for the same. Something as simple as “I can see that you have been practicing x” or “I can tell that you have been working on y” is not, in my view, rewarding them, but merely acknowledging that you can see the effort, particularly if you then move on to providing feedback or whatever it is that you are doing.

Alfie then began to speak about punishments, or as they are often called; consequences. He remarked that the language does not change the fact that if a student feels like it is a punishment then it is a punishment. Forced social isolation sounds terrible, yet it is often referred to as detention or time-out and spoken as being a consequence of some action he said. Alfie continued by noting that to understand rewards, we need to understand punishments and that punishments (and rewards) can work. They can achieve temporary compliance in a specific context, but only at a great cost.

Alfie posits that when we tell a student “Do x or I will do y (or y will happen to you)” we are teaching them self-interest as it encourages students to think about the action as being necessary for the reward or avoidance of punishment. It also, in the case of punishments, enacted when the student is caught doing whatever the act is that is being frowned upon, which means that if they can avoid being caught in the act then they will do the act irrespective of the threat.  This creates distrust and fosters selfishness.

“The best way to ensure that something happens is to ban it.”
-Unknown

This desire to avoid being caught doing something deemed wrong and therefore avoid being punished stifles conversations about the kind of woman or man the child wants to grow up to be. The implication here is that the paradigm of how we teach children about right and wrong and about consequences, punishments and rewards is ineffective and detrimental to achieving what we want. However, this assumption depends on what the goal is. We should be asking students to consider what kind of person do I want to be?

I struggle with this. My (admittedly limited) experience tells me that students struggle to think about abstract things in a concrete way. That considering what their personality will be like when they are adults is a very difficult feat to achieve to with real sincerity. I have tried to talk with students about their goals for the future, some with very specific goals, and encourage them to consider how their learning now will impact their ability to achieve their goal and it is not something they are able to do.

Additionally, I struggle with the concept of removing punishments or consequences, which I get the impression is what Alfie is arguing for when I know that there are students with whom that approach will only exacerbate their behaviour, escalating it to be dangerous. I have friends who have been in classrooms and have had chairs thrown at them, or tables have been flipped and fights have broken out amongst students. I agree with the premise (Aristotle, Rhetoric) that all actions occur for a reason, yet how do you educate a violent child that violence is not the answer when, in their experience, violence gets them what they want? I have heard it said that if your lesson is engaging enough that you will not have class management problems. But with more experience and (a little) less naiveté, how can you deliver a lesson when you cannot engage the students because they are violent and disruptive or disengaged with school, or there is no support for education at home?

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jsk6jeh on 19 November 2016

Alfie posits that punishments and rewards are as manipulative as each other and are therefore merely two sides of the same coin. Rewards, he said, disrupt the vertical (teacher-student) and the horizontal (peer-peer) relationships and trust. Rewards reinforce power that the parent or teacher holds over the child or student. Alfie remarked that in classrooms where a reward is offered for a certain level of achievement, or grades that a student who needs and wants help is less disposed to ask for help in order to conceal the weakness. This on reflection seems rather counter-intuitive. If a reward is offered for achieving a certain grade and assistance was required to achieve the grade and therefore achieve the reward then why would you not make the request for help? Am I being too simplistic here in my understanding of the scenario? Perhaps this is the kind of context that Alfie spoke about, that if the reward is large enough then the result will be temporary compliance.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jsk6jeh on 19 November 2016

One of the greatest predictors of learning, Alfie informed the audience, is being part of a caring community; with a sense of us rather than a sense of me. This links back to what was said about the way in which punishments create a sense of if I do not get caught and implies that a strong community will actually contribute to a reduction for the need for punishments. He also stated that just as punishments change the thinking to be ego-centric, to avoid punishment, so too do rewards change thinking to be ego-centric, to be given the reward.

An award is simply an artificially rarefied reward. Alfie posits that creating a competitive culture in the classroom tells students that others are an obstacle to their success and that their value or worth is only as good as the extent to which they defeat others. We were also told that competition makes students less communicative. The point that was made here was that why would a student communicate openly or trust others when it potentially creates a situation where their help will be used against them, fostering a culture where people are envious of winners and contemptuous of losers. Perhaps this is remedied by changing the system and removing grades and marks?

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The impact on children of second-hand smoking. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/htnqn5x on 19 November 2016

In this day and age we are all aware and understand the dangers of second-hand smoke. Alfie said that “the impact of competitiveness is as bad as second-hand smoke in the psychological sense as it creates a situation where students cannot feel good about themselves in one context or another without others failing. I have not read enough of the research (read: I have not read any of the research) to have a grasp on the accuracy of this statement. My initial reaction was that it is a gross exaggeration and that that could not possibly be true, however, I have seen advertisements from the days when smoking was considered a good thing and I remember the arguments and the gradual social shift that took us from a society where smoking was acceptable to it being seen as a disgusting and smelly habit, with smokers shunned in many ways.

Alfie began to wrap up the session at this point. He reminded us that rewards and punishments focus on the end-result, not the underlying reason for the end-result and all behaviour happens for a reason.

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Rewards undermined the interest of students in whatever it is that is being rewarded, the audience was told. I have not seen this for myself, however, I have seen how schooling can destroy a student’s interest in something through the edufication of a student interest .  My school is putting on a musical this year to celebrate the school’s sixtieth anniversary, calling it Dancing through the decades. Each Stage has been assigned two (non-consecutive) decades and will be performing a ten-minute block for each decade. Stage Three has been assigned the seventies and the current decade (are we really calling it the teens?) One of the songs chosen was quite popular when we first began but is now very much less so because they are sick of hearing the music and practicing singing.

The model is wrong, to the point where students are sometimes rewarded for a reward. Being rewarded for a reward, whether it be a car for good exam results in the case of those at the end of their schooling or something much smaller such as a toy, lollies or fast food for a perfect spelling test is wrong. We did not get explicit reasons for this, however, I feel that it is an amplification of the overall problem with rewards, that it undermines whatever is being strived for by limiting growth and putting a cap on excellence.

The topic of motivation arose, and Alfie reminded us of the typical understanding that there are two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic,  and that, he alleges, research shows that the kind of motivation has a much more significant impact on the outcome than the amount of motivation. He went on to say that research indicates that as levels of extrinsic motivation increase, levels of intrinsic motivation shows a proportional decrease.

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Rewarding someone for doing something actively damages a person’s interest in that thing. Alfie spoke about research that was done to study this using soft-drink. A new flavour was tested and those who drank it knowing that they would be rewarded showed more negative feelings about the product a few weeks later. In contrast to this, those who drank the product knowing they would not be receiving a reward demonstrated the same or slightly better feelings about the product afterwards.

Alfie posed a hypothetical: what is the alternative to rewards? Ultimately, it varies according to what the end goal is and no one alternative is a panacea to solve the issue. He indicated that it is his view that programs such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) do not achieve anything more than produce mindless obedience and that they do not result in more proficient learners. Giving students more say in the way that classrooms are run is one way of impacting attitudes and behaviours and I have heard of a system where a class runs their own court system (as outlined here) which apparently works quite well.

Alfie’s talk raised lots of questions and I feel like I still do not have answers for them. I did not have an opportunity to speak to him after the session as he, like all of us, needed a break to eat some dinner before the second session began. Reflecting on the ideas and what he spoke about, though, I can agree with much of what he spoke about. Where I begin to struggle is with implementing the changes that would be necessary to change my own practice.

What does this look like in a classroom? What does it look like in a school? Even if you negotiate the rules within a class and punishments for breaking them with the class and everyone is on board, is that generating the same results as rules arbitrarily set down and enforced by the teacher? Consequences are a part of life; touch a hot stove and you get burned, commit a crime and you face the consequences set down in law. If that is wrong, then the fundamental fabric of how our society functions is wrong and needs to be re-examined, which I do not see ever happening due to a large range of factors, not the least of which is tradition and a need for control (which in and of itself speaks to a lot of what Alfie was saying). If you do manage to create a model without punishments, how do you correct the behaviour which is socially unacceptable; swearing, derogatory language, violence, and disrespect of self and others; in students who see those things modelled as acceptable at home? How does this model fit with research from The Dunedin Project? This world-renowned longitudinal study has found that there is actually a genomic predisposition towards violence and extreme violence in some people, amongst other traits often regarded as socially unacceptable (Caspi, A. , McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E. , Mill, J.S., Martin, J. , Craig, I., Taylor, A., Poulton, R. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 2002, 297 (297), 851-854). . What impact does that have on this issue?

I often hear that secondary education cops it because things that happen or do not happen in primary school. I also often hear parents ask why I am trying a particular approach or idea when their child is off to high school and it will straight back to traditional classrooms, masses of homework etc. How does this concept fit within that constraint, the transition from primary to high school? There is a lot to consider here and I would very much appreciate hearing your comments on the topic, as well as any feedback on the article or your own interpretations of Alfie’s work in this area.

As always, thank you for reading.

TeachMeet: Teaching for Thinking

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
– Attributed to Aristotle

Earlier in the year I attended a TeachMeet about Teaching for Thinking, or Teaching Philosophy in Schools at St Leo’s Catholic College, Wahroonga. The event was a very interesting one, with lots of challenging ideas about education and how we teach children to think. As always, I wrote a series of review articles, which you can find linked to below:

  1. Part One
  2. Part Two
  3. Part Three
  4. Part Four

Another Teaching for Thinking TeachMeet has been organised, to be held on Sunday, 29th November from 1300 to 1600 at Wyvern House Preparatory School in Stanmore.

From the invitational flyer:

The teachmeet will be an introductory platform for passionate and interested educators and leaders from a range of schools across Sydney to share their experiences, expertise, vision and learn from one another. Topics for discussion will include: Critical and Creative Thinking; Philosophy in the classroom; and Tools of inquiry The afternoon will include five presenters, a Q&A session, followed by an open forum/panel discussion. The teachmeet will also be a great opportunity to start a broader dialogue about teaching for thinking and build professional networks.

Speakers include Emeritus Professor Phil Cam,  President of Philosophy in Schools NSW from the University of New South Wales speaking under the title Because and Therefore;  Dr Britta Jensen an English and French teacher from Marist College North Shore speaking under the title Fostering a thinking disposition in our students; Mr Dan Smith Deputy Principal at Leichhardt Public School speaking under the title Bringing philosophy into school – 10 years of experience; Ms Sally Parker, a Science Teacher from Moriah College speaking under the title Stimulus material, Concept games and Questioning tools for the Science classroom; and Ms Ksenia Filatov, English and Philosophy Teacher at St Leo’s Catholic College speaking under Teaching and Applied Philosophy elective course for years 9-10.

To attend, please RSVP through this google form by Thursday 26th November.

The moments that remind you why you teach.

“I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.”
– Attributed to Alexander the Great

Recently I wrote an article talking about the issue of teacher work-life balance, and my current lack thereof. It has generated some interesting discussions and I have had some helpful conversations with members of my PLN who have reached out, for which I am grateful. It seems that the conversations I have had face-to-face where it has been indicated that the hours I keep currently are somewhat normal have been somewhat supported by conversations on Twitter.

A conversation with one Tweacher indicated they kept similarish hours to myself vis-a-vis time spent at school but allowed a longer break between the end of the school day and resuming work at home, and with more frequent breaks over the weekend when working at home. Another Tweacher noted that for them, involvement with professional associations and Twitter allowed them to blend their social life with their educational life, acknowledging that  they were unsure if this constituted having a work-life balance.

When I first began this blog, I wrote about why I teach and why I joined the teaching profession in a time when there is intense scrutiny of men professing a desire to work with children and men are seemingly avoiding the teaching profession. In my own Initial Teacher Education (ITE) cohort, there were perhaps only ten of us out of around one hundred and fifty.

Despite how I was feeling in general, I was still excited to be in the classroom. I have some great things going on with my students, particularly my Stage Three classes and this morning reinforced that. I had one of my Stage Three classes, and we have been learning about the Cornell note-taking strategy. To be able to take good quality notes is a very handy skill and something that I wish I had had in high school, or even in my first two years at university.

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I was open about that, as well. I showed them some of my notes from a first-year course and we talked about what was wrong with them and why those notes were not as helpful as they could be. We then talked about the projects that they had completed that year with their classroom teacher and the research they did as part of that and how having useful notes would have made things easier.

I have been really proud of the way they have engaged with the learning process for this topic. We have spent a considerable amount of time practicing using the strategy and are now at the point where it is time to wrap the unit up with a summative assessment task.

Part of my professional development recently has included conversations about student choice, prompted, I think, by a comment that Jon Bergmann made during one of his keynotes at FlipConAus recently when he asked the audience “Why do we make our students demonstrate what they learned by making them take a test?”

I had heard something similar previously, though I cannot recall where, and I decided to try it out. So I had a conversation with each of my Stage Three classes and asked them “what do you want to do to demonstrate to me that you know how to use and can use the Cornell note-taking strategy on your own?” We discussed that, and then I asked them “what does success look like in your chosen strategy?” which prompted a conversation about what would be expected in each method that demonstrates understanding. The students loved it and were genuinely engaged with the process of developing their assignments.

It was a “so this is why I teach” moment for me. The students were genuinely engaged, poring through the notes they had taken as we learned about Cornell note-taking together to help them put together their own demonstration. Some of my students were filming a video where they explained it and then demonstrated how it was used, some of my students chose to take some notes on a self-chosen topic and submit those with annotations, and some have chosen to put together a powerpoint presentation. There was creation, there was analysing, there was collaboration, group work, individual work, peer support as one of a more advanced students worked closely with a student who required some additional support, going through the same steps that I would have to support the students. I was cheering inside.

I told the students this during the session-end reflections. I also asked them how they felt about being able to direct their own learning in this way and as a whole group, they felt empowered to own their learning and show off what they actually knew in different ways, rather than in the same way as everyone else.

It was a great morning.

Then things returned to Earth and I ended up wandering down to our Deputy Principal’s office and asking her for some advice on an incident, which in and of itself, was very minor, but which in the larger picture of the students involved could merely be a stepping stone to something larger.

The afternoon was much better, I had another Stage Three class, who are one session away from finishing the current unit of work, after which I have said we will explore green screen technology using VeeScope Live.

Oh, the roller coaster of teaching! I wonder if students are truly aware of their impact on us, as teachers.

Halfway Home and Teacher’s Programs

“Once you’re halfway home, you know that you can probably get the rest of the way there.
-Attributed to Janis Ian

Today is Wednesday of Week Five which means we are halfway through the current term, and that many teachers are silently cheering that they are now on the homeward stretch. There is no small amount of tiredness and fatigue this term, as many teachers find themselves staggering under the burdens laid upon them by all of the additional extras that are currently the expected norm in the teaching profession. The after school meetings, the various clubs and groups that run during lunchtimes, the various intra- and inter-school competitions all take valuable time from a teacher’s day and add varying levels of stress and work to a teacher’s already busy and crowded timetable.

Personally, I am find myself alternating between incredibly tired and worn out and strongly motivated and energetic. On the one hand I am really happy with the progress that some of my students have made this term, particularly in infants, where we have been focusing on some fundamental computer skills, particularly typing skills. The self-efficacy that various students are showing now when compared to the beginning of term two, or even the beginning of term three, is vastly improved.

In stark contrast with that, I feel like, in many ways, I am taking two steps backwards for every one I take forwards. I feel like I have not achieved anything this term, and this is backed up when I look at my program. However, I have spent a significant amount of time working on some fundamental computer skills which I identified as lacking in my primary students, and have needed to devote a significant amount of time to working on those skills, as they are part of the foundation of digital literacy. In that frame of mind, I feel like it has been a valuable investment in time for the long-term result, which I likely will not see, particularly for my Stage Three students.

it is a reminder of the oft-quoted remark by German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke, which is that “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” which can be converted, I believe, into “no teacher’s program survives the term unchanged.” There are also a large number of interruptions in the coming weeks, with Book Week (which I do in fact enjoy and have already organised my costume for the book parade), the zone athletics carnival, Infants athletics carnival, Father’s Day stalls, and the swim program for Year Two and Three students which spreads across two weeks.

Looking at what is left to cover in my program this term and comparing that to the amount of teaching time I will have access to with the various interruptions, I do not think that I can complete my program for this term without sacrificing the attainment of conceptual understanding and deep learning by my students, a compromise I do not want to make. This program was also my first, and I was aware going into it that I was perhaps biting off more than I could chew in regards to what I set out to achieve. I do need to sit down and update my program with the various changes that I have made, and notes of what did and did not work in various portions of the program.

I would very much like to hear how you manage your program and keep it up to date with what changes and modifications you have had to make, both impromptu and planned.

#TeachforThink

Just a very brief post today, simply to say that I will not be posting article as I am off to a Teaching for Think Forum, to be held at St Leo’s Catholic College in Waroongha.

I do not plan to live tweet from the forum, so that I can focus on what the speakers are saying and take some notes. I do plan to post a review tomorrow afternoon though, so keep an eye out for that. There may be some live tweeters at the event, so keep an eye out for #TeachforThink on Twitter. 

EduTech and The Teaching for Thinking Forum

The annual EduTECH conference is on this week in Brisbane, and it promises to be an excellent event, with some great keynote speakers, and of course the large range of exhibitors. I would have liked to have gone, but am unable to do so. If you are interested in following the happenings, keep your eyes open for #EduTECH and if you are at EduTech, then make sure you get along to one of the #TMEduTech sessions. I would particularly like to hear about Monika Kern’s two minute session on The RAT model – an alternative to SAMR.

If you are unable to make it EduTech, consider sending an RSVP to the email on the bottom of the below invitation to attend the Teaching for Thinking Forum at to St Leo’s Catholic College this Thursday at 4.30.

Teaching for Thinking Forum FlyerThe agenda looks interesting, and I will either live tweet (look for #TeachforThink) or write a review the following day.

Have a great week everyone, and as always, thank you for reading.

Art

“A broad education in the arts helps give children a better understanding of their world…We need students who are culturally literate as well as math and science literate.”
–Attributed to Paul Ostergard, Vice President, Citicorp

As I believe I have previously written, Thursday is my day where I get thrown around class to class according to where extra relief is needed. I may say thrown around, but I do enjoy the variety, and often it is a nice break from my own program, as I often am asked to teach from the classroom teacher’s own program. It is a nice way to end my week, usually, and today was no exception.

Today started out with plans for navigating around the final day of NAPLAN, with my original timetable modified as a result of NAPLAN, but actually working out quite well. I had one particular class today, and it was the first time that I had had them for a decent block of time. I had them for an hour with the laptops, and then again later on for another hour in the school computer lab, and it was absolutely fantastic. We were able to achieve so much, and when I showed the class the spreadsheet with the achievement dates in it at the start of the second session, and showed them how much we had achieved, the students got quite excited and were quite well focused for the second session as well. Being open with the assessment strategy in this case, helped with the engagement levels.

My afternoon session was great, I had a year one class who has been learning about the weather, the different seasons, the types of weather that occur in the seasons etc, and today’s lesson was to do with rain. We spent the afternoon creating blue sponge-paintings as backgrounds for the crayoned umbrellas.I have not, up until now, done a painting session with any class, so it was quite the experience, however I was able to avoid getting any point on my clothes, and only a small amount on my hands. It was, however, a lot of fun, and the students were able to explain a fair bit to me about the weather, which demonstrates that the knowledge and the concepts of weather and their relationship to the seasons has been absorbed and retained.

As always, thank you for reading, and have a great weekend. I’m heading home now to start creating some more videos for my program (which I will be doing all day Friday and Saturday).

Redefining Education

“I will not let an exam result decide my fate.”
– Suli Breaks, Vanity Fair, 2009

I recently wrote an article discussing the need to redefine our roles as educators titled Redefining ContentAs I was scrolling through my Twitter Feed recently I stumbled upon a link to a YouTube video titled Why I Hate School But Love Education. It is a spoken word video, delivered by a young gent, and is an exposition on his views on schooling and education and it is rather thought provoking.

On my first view, I am rather unsure how I feel about it, and am left with a certain feeling of cognitive dissonance, and feel affronted and as if my own philosophy towards teaching has been challenged, a feeling which I quickly quashed as being silly. The underlying principle of this man’s words is one that, on the whole, I think I agree with, that being the principle that we need to redefine what schooling and education are as they are not what they were even a generation ago, let along being the same as the early years of the nineteenth century.

I’ll post the video below, and I would very much like to hear what people’s thoughts are.

Put your best foot forward

As tomorrow marks the beginning of the new school year for many students here in Australia, so it is also the first day of their new career for many graduate teachers, whom, having completed their teaching degree and having attained full time appointments straight out, seek to start out the new, and for them, first, year on a positive note.

There are many sources of advice and tips on how to approach your first day in your classroom available on the internet (for example, here, here, here or here) and of course you will be regaled advice, tips and secrets used in the past by your new colleagues and  you will hear how they survived their first days in the classroom.

Without getting into the debate about the value, quality or nature of advice found on the internet (I would like to think that we are all aware of the fact that just because something is on the internet does not make it so (as made all too clear in this example from 2012). Further to this, just because an experienced teacher told you about a strategy that worked for them, it does not necessarily that it will translate into your classroom.

I would like to point out that I am not saying that all advice you are given by experienced teachers is suspect, irrelevant or out of date. Indeed, you will likely receive a lot of valuable advice, particularly from those teachers within your new school, which brings me to the point of this short article.

You are going to be teaching within a particular context this year. That context will be different to the one in which you will teach next year, the year after that and every year until you retire, or move into a non-teaching position within the education hierarchy. This is because you have students this year who have lived certain experiences. Those experiences are different to those experiences they had lived last year, and so the students’ themselves are different.

A teacher may explain to you how they survived their first day of teaching ten years ago, and there will be some nuggets of usefulness within what you are told. However, those strategies worked for that teacher, with those students, in that year. The nature of children, the education system, technology and teaching means that you may not be able to use the same strategies as that teacher did (unless by some freak of Whovian time-travel you end up in that exact same classroom, physically and temporally) because the context is different.

Unless you happen to know the current Doctor you will have to make adjustments to any advice you are given to suit your specific context. The children you teach this year have lived through their own particular experiences, as have you. The technology, and to some degree the pedagogy and curriculum, are also different, and you need to factor that into any strategy you are given as ‘advice for surviving your first day.’

Listen carefully to the advice you are given. It is offered freely, based on experience, and well-intended. You do not have to use the advice. You also should not reject it out of hand, even if you wholeheartedly disagree with it – you do not have to use it just because it has been offered. You may have come to teaching with particular ideals of what education is for, how classrooms and schools should be run, and what learning means. Ultimately, you will teach in a way that fits who you are, within the context of your classroom. Your students will change over the course of this year, and so the way you teach may also change, as you and your students grow and develop in your separate but conjoined pathway of learning.

This of course is all advice, and so although I feel that it is useful, you do not have to use it, and that is perfectly legitimate. It is, after all, only advice.

Good luck for the year to all teachers, but particularly to those of you whom are new to the profession.

Why do you teach?

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
– Attributed to William Arthur Ward

First of all, I apologise for being tardy with getting this blog entry up far, far later than I said I would. I spent the second week of the school holidays at a football (soccer) tournament as a referee coach, mentoring and coaching young referees, and as much fun as it was, I came home on the Saturday before Term started, and was asleep by 8.30 that night, and didn’t wake until 10 the next morning. Then it was headlong into my Internship in a Year 5/6 class. This coming week is my third week, and I absolutely love it so far. I’ve got an excellent CT (classroom teacher), who is incredibly supportive and challenges me to justify what I want to do in a lesson, not to discourage me, but to help me focus on what the specific purpose of that lesson is.

Moving along.

As you read this post, I’d like you to consider why it is you teach. What makes you get up every morning, get to school at 7 am for a 9 am start, and leave the grounds at 5 pm, when the students all left at 3 pm? For what reason do you do this?

I promised last time that I would post my teaching philosophy, which was partly about making myself accountable for actually writing it, and partly about opening up dialogue on this topic. We were told that we had to write a teaching philosophy for our internship portfolio for university, and that it should reflect why we teach and what we believe about teaching, but beyond that, there was no guidance. I have never seen any practicing teacher’s philosophy, and so had no benchmark or starting point and so asked my CT about his. This led to a long conversation about the purpose of a teaching philosophy how to write it, how to structure it, and what it should be about.

From that conversation came the realisation that it is an incredibly personal document, that should be revisited regularly (my CT said he goes back to his at the beginning of each year) as our lives, and therefore our reasons for teaching, change regularly.  I have adopted the same structure for my teaching philosophy as that used by my CT as it makes sense, and helps to make it a real document to me, as opposed to a useless of piece of academia, submitted for an assignment and then consigned to the dustbin.

It is based on three questions, which form the document structure. The first section is headed “Why” and is an answer to the question “why do I teach?” The second is informed by the first, and is headed “How” and outlines how I will teach. The third section, “What” is what I will teach, and is mandated by the syllabus documents we are all required to work within.

I thought I knew why I teach. However, when I sat down to write my philosophy, I found myself writing a series of clichés such as “I like working with children, all children should have the opportunity to succeed, I want to make a difference in the world” etc. Although I do agree with those statements, they are not what compels me to teach, and makes me excited to be going down this career path and they felt hollow when I put them on paper. I knew inside myself what the real reason for my desire to teach was, but have always felt that it was not right/rigorous/academic enough, and so have always shied away from using it on those occasions when the question of why I want to teach comes up.

When I made that comment to my CT, he nodded and said that that is the reason why it’s a personal teaching philosophy, and not an academic assignment. It has to be something that we as teachers can look at on those days when we want to headbutt a brick wall and that will make us smile and remember why we do this. It should be personal to each of us, and so will be different for each of us and it will then influence how we teach. S/He who teaches for money teaches differently than s/he who teaches for a desire to create change in the world.

This, then, is my first draft of part one of my teaching philosophy. I am still working on translating the why into the how in such a way that it makes sense on paper.

Why Do I Teach?

I teach for two reasons. I had two amazing male teachers in my own primary education. Both were strong men whom I looked up to, as both had a strong presence, as they were encouraging of my strengths and chiding of my weaknesses, pushing me to work on them. They were men who were able to work with all of my peers, challenging each of us at our own academic level.

My three younger siblings on the other hand, across their combined eighteen years of primary education, had a total of one year with a male teacher, and the difference that that year of a strong male influence every day at school made on my sister and her self-confidence in dealing with her brothers and in talking to other male, non-immediate family members, was tremendous.

My youngest brother needed a strong male role-model as a steadying influence and to provide guidance on interpersonal skills in the day-to-day situations at school that a father does not have access to. I teach because I want to be the positive male role model for those students who otherwise may not have one.

The second reason that I teach is due to a love of learning and discovery, a love that was instilled by my family, but nurtured by my primary school teachers. It is that love of learning, the desire to know more about areas of interest, and the excitement of the moment when the dots are joined between prior knowledge and new understanding that provides the second reason why I teach.

I would love to hear from other teachers as to how you set out your teaching philosophy, how you utilise it, and even just why it is you get out of bed to teach every morning. This is my first draft, and I’m still working on cleaning it up to make it more academic sounding, but at the same time, if it’s a personal document, do I need to?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.