Worst Lesson Ever Taught

A typical interview question is, “Can you tell me about a really good lesson you have taught, and say what made it so good?” I’m used to that one and I always have one in mind before I go to an interview.

The last time I went for an interview though, they really threw me. “Can you tell us about a really bad lesson you have taught, and what you learnt from it?” I wasn’t expecting that. Quite apart from the fact that nobody ever wants to share their failures, it’s a hard question to answer. Like most teachers I finish every lesson thinking, “I wish I could teach that all over again – I could do it so much better next time.” How do you choose one from so many like that? I decided to talk about the first lesson I ever taught as a trainee teacher as I don’t think lessons get any worse than that particular one.

I knew what my lesson objective was, and I had thought really carefully about what independent activities I wanted the class to do to practise the learning objective. What I hadn’t considered enough, was how I was going to break down the learning objective to allow them to achieve it. The result was a shambles. I threw far too much information at them in one go, and then set them off on their first task.

Of course, they didn’t understand and the noise level rose as they asked each other what to do. I got frustrated because nobody was working. They were frustrated because I was telling them to be quiet and just get on with it, but they couldn’t. By the end of the hour every child in that class hated me, and they were my least favourite class for the rest of my placement.

But I did take away a very important lesson of my own from that experience, and the first bit of advice I would give any trainee teacher going into the classroom for the first time is this:
The lesson objective is what the class should achieve by the end of the lesson. They are not going to be able to do it after the first ten minutes of the lesson – if they can then your expectations are not high enough. You need to plan a series of small steps for them to take throughout the lesson so that by the end they can look at the lesson objective and say, “Yes – I can do that.”

I’ve never made that mistake again, and now whenever I teach I think about my particular children and plan how to break the objective down for those particular children.

Report writing

Each year I buy several ring leaf record cards (one for each school and year group) like these from Wilkinsons. At the beginning of the year I label each card with the name, photo and class/year group of each pupil, and throughout the year I jot little notes down about their progress: participation, pronunciation, accuracy of written work etc. It doesn’t take much time to write a quick line on the card while marking work, or to add a sentence at the end of a lesson.  I obviously don’t write on every card every day – just when there is something particular I want to add, such as the fact that they’ve shown particular interest in a topic, started answering more questions etc.

I find this useful at parents’ evenings when I can refer to the card to make sure I don’t forget anything important. When you watch the children grow and progress week by week, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the confident child who is always first to volunteer for role plays was too shy to say their own name at the beginning of the year – especially when you are teaching more than one class in more than one school. I don’t have to spend time writing notes especially for the occasion because I’ve been doing it bit by bit during the year and I’ve had a really positive reaction from parents, who love the personalisation.

It’s also a blessing at this time of year when it’s time to write reports because everything I want to say is right there at my fingertips – a whole year’s worth of progress all on one card.  There’s no need to choose from banks of statements, or copy and paste sentences from reports of children who are similar, with the risk of forgetting to change the name. It’s quicker to just write individual, completely personalised reports from the notes in my hand.

Teach Like You Mean It!

I often see Facebook posts from trainee teachers and NQTs asking how to make particular subjects “exciting”, or looking for a hook to draw them in.

While I agree it’s important that children enjoy learning, I also think it’s important to remember that being exciting is not necessarily the same as being engaging. As the teacher in the classroom, we are the main ingredient in engaging the children and we are more than just the sum of the activities we choose.

I always remember one particular lesson I taught as a trainee teacher. It was Y9 French, and the topic was boring. I racked my brains trying to think of a way to spice it up, to make it more exciting. I couldn’t come up with anything and nor could my mentor. This was before Facebook was as big as it is now, so I couldn’t ask around in any of the teaching groups to get advice from hundreds of teachers around the country. I knew I was doomed. If I thought this topic was boring, there was no way I was going to convince 30 Year 9s otherwise and I was dreading the lesson. The closer it got, the more I was dreading it.

Eventually the time of the lesson arrived. With a sinking feeling in my heart I walked to the door to greet my class. Plastering a smile on my face, I uttered my first words: “Come in. Settle down quickly. I can’t wait to get started – I’ve been looking forward to today’s lesson all week.”

The change in the class was immediately visible. They picked up their heads, slumped shoulders perked up and they sat ready to listen to see what was going to be so good about this lesson. It actually turned into one of the best lessons I taught during my training year. The pupils were engaged. They worked hard and asked pertinent questions. They learnt something new and because they were so willing to commit to the learning process, we also cleared up a couple of misconceptions they already had. My mentor was delighted and I got a really good grading for that lesson. It was then I realised that it was my attitude that made all the difference.

Many years later I was given the topic of electricity to teach in science to year four. It was a topic I’d never taught before, and it was one I’d never really enjoyed learning about at school, so I really wasn’t looking forward to it. So I did what I always do in such situations. I smiled brightly and told them how much fun we were going to have learning about electricity. This became one of my (and their) favourite subjects that year. The children worked so hard and enjoyed it so much that we finished everything on the curriculum ahead of time. We were then able to explore other areas which they chose themselves: how electricity is generated and how it travels from the power station to people’s homes, how a battery works, how the ISS gets its power, and even how a Faraday cage works.

I didn’t have a snazzy title for the topic. I didn’t have a great “hook”. I didn’t even have lots of expensive and exciting resources. What I did have was the ability to fake it until it became true. My advice now to NQTs and trainee teachers is, “Don’t stress about hooks and titles and worrying about whether or not they will find it exciting. Instead, just tell them how much fun it’s going to be – and then teach like you really mean it!