A Teacher's Hat by Grant Hudson B.A.(Hons), Head Teacher of Greenfields SchoolEach and every student who appears in a classroom contains within them rich seams of talent, skill, ability and passion for life, like deep veins of coal.
As with coal-mining, these wonderful resources are not always evident on the surface. It takes a teacher’s skill to detect them, to dig for them and to extract them. Often they are so deeply buried that a teacher must simply trust that they are there and persist long enough for them to manifest themselves in some way. Experience suggests, though, that they are always to be found, given enough persistence and sharpness of wit on the part of the teacher. That persistence can be very much like coal-mining by hand: taking a spade and hacking away at the blank faces in front of you, moment by moment, lesson by lesson, term by term, until one day you strike lucky and find that vein of coal in that particular individual.
Once these are tapped into, a student is transformed from a pretty solid recipient of information, some of which is absorbed but much of which bounces off, into an active participant in a subject. In effect, the “coal” you have found begins to burn with life and interest and activity. Someone who previously drifted off or misbehaved in your lessons becomes a person who asks for more, who reaches for the advanced material, who creates things within the subject that are fresh, individual and exciting.
It’s easy to give up when you look at the surface landscape that a student presents you with day after day. There are clues, though: what does this particular person talk about, find interesting, laugh at? Keep in mind that they themselves are more often than not totally unaware of the “coal” within them. You might assume that your own quest to find these inner riches would be met with cooperation and assistance on the student’s behalf, but the student, in ignorance of his or her own secret wealth, is just as likely to reject and spurn your interest as to help you find it. Only when you do actually hit the seam and see the person’s face light up in front of you can you in any way expect the individual to cooperate with you. At that point, though, it will be more than cooperation - it will be eagerness and enthusiasm to learn more.
Some people think of education as the latter part of this sequence, the bit where the teacher and student work together joyfully on the creative and enthralling parts of a subject. In fact, the bulk of education is like the bulk of coal-mining - patiently prospecting and then laboriously digging deep, persisting day by day, and then finally reaping the rewards of discovery.
It's important to remember that the whole purpose of the school - from the work that estates, maintenance, personnel, ethics, marketing, finances, timetabling, testing, tours and planning do - is to create an environment in which lessons can take place for students.
Even more fundamentally, the framework of the whole school exists so that an individual student can become interested in a range of subjects, learn their secrets, come to know them more fully and in the end participate in them.
A teacher is a gatekeeper, someone who presents a subject in its most interesting form so that individual students engage with it, understand it, and contribute to it.
In this, a teacher's main tools include recognising where each individual student's attention is, engaging it and directing it repeatedly onto the most interesting and key simplicities of a subject until a connection between the individual student and the subject has been established, and then constructing a bridge deeper and deeper into the subject's heart so that the student comes to know the material rather than simply 'know about' it.
This bridge to knowledge is made by making sure that the subject is as interesting as possible, by clearing misunderstandings out of the way, and by moving forward at the most optimum pace.
Choosing the right syllabus, selecting the best text books, devising the most engaging schemes of work, providing the necessary amount of reality in lessons, and attracting attention through carefully planned and run lessons are part of what a teacher must do to get the product.
There is no such thing as a difficult student; there is only a failure to recognise where a student's attention is, followed by a missed attempt to redirect it and a lack of success in removing obstacles in the way of that particular student.
Students who are trying to engage with subjects but failing can and should first be addressed in lesson as this is the primary action of a teacher - to connect the student with the subject. Only when this becomes too difficult within the confines of a class-based lesson should specialised additional resources need to be involved, and then only until individual barriers have been addressed sufficiently for a student to return to class.
A student whose attention is recognisably not anywhere near the subject - as indicated by disruptive behaviour - needs to be addressed both inside and outside a lesson environment through reason and ethics to recover that attention and restore it to the field of learning. Then particular barriers can be dealt with.
The whole structure is there to connect students to subjects and bring about a state of affairs in which individual students are in tremendous affinity with a range of subjects.
That is education.
Education systems, so called, fail from the first instance in betraying any attempt by students to become interested in subjects. We must not go down that road. Our basic assumptions must include:
1. That all subjects either are or can be made interesting to all students.
2. That all students want to have a closer affinity for and understanding of all subjects.
3. That connecting students with subjects is our responsibility (given that we possess more knowledge of subjects than they do) and
4. That it is always possible to direct attention and remove barriers so that connections are made and sustained.
If teachers do not begin with these assumptions - plus a confidence that they can connect students to a subject or subjects - then education itself becomes almost impossible and students (and parents) are betrayed. If teachers recognise these assumptions, the real work of teaching can begin.
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