What did you learn today?

I recently wrote an article on education for the Catholic Times, asking questions of the patterns now adopted in schools in England. It has been suggested to me that I might generalise some of those comments for a wider audience. So….

What is a good teacher?

There are many occasions in the Gospel narrative when Jesus is addressed as Rabbi or Teacher. It was a position of status within the community. It is worth while examining the status of the teacher within our own culture.

Job or Vocation?

In the late 90s I contributed to a book on Primary headship. The book was reviewed in the Times Educational Supplement by Ted Wragg, at that time professor of Education in the University of Exeter. His words focused in on my contribution. A few days later I wrote to him to thank him for his generous comments, explaining how low I felt personally trying to make some sense of it all. His reply contained this sentence ‘Just remember that teaching is probably one of the most important jobs’.That lifted me considerably. Wragg was an inspirational teacher of future teachers, many gained from his enthusiasm.

Whenever I had student teachers visit our school I advised them that if they genuinely liked children and really wanted to teach, then it was indeed a worthwhile task; if not, then look for some other option. The word ‘vocation’ has been relegated from our language, we have lost the values it implies, seeking only financial return.

What is a good school ?

In the final page of Michael Barber’s  book’ THE LEARNING GAME’ there is this statement:

“So in order to help create the learning society what should we ask? Isn’t it obvious? The question has to be: ‘What did you learn today?’ I took my courage in both hands recently and tried this out at a social gathering. The effect was electrifying. I had more fun and learnt more than at any other event I can remember”

Apart from Barber’s amusement, this is a crucial question that is central to the purpose of schools. It is fundamental to school improvement. Our task is all about creating the most effective learning environment.

With that in mind, I designed a poster ‘WHAT DID YOU LEARN IN SCHOOL TODAY?’ Copies were put in all our teaching areas, in the library and dining room, the staff room and outside my office. I asked this question of children when I met them about the school, on the playground or on their way home in the evening in front of parents. I have also turned the question towards parents, with some interesting results… I suggested that this is a far more useful question than the usual one they ask as soon as they meet their children after school: ‘What have you done in school today?’ From the initial tentative response, with children unable to formulate a reply, we reached the point where some children came up to me to volunteer the detail and, more to the point, turned  the question round, seeking an adult response.

Learning is an inquisitive skill, the exploration of ourselves and the world in which we live. The teacher is the one who walks beside you on the Emmaus Road; the head teacher or school principal enables and encourages their teachers to do just that.

And what of our pupils?

What is the cost of our present pattern of education for pupils?

In the early 80s, Neil Postman, then teaching at Columbia University in the States, wrote “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”That opening sentence from his book ‘The Disappearance of Childhood’ has remained with me. It is a precious responsibility to accompany young ones as they take the first tentative steps of their journey.

A good teacher?

The one time head of OFSTED, the late Chris Woodhead, was being interviewed on the radio by Jeremy Paxman. He was asked by Paxman this question ‘Well, Mr Woodhead, what makes a good teacher?’ It received a stunningly simplistic answer ‘Someone who tells you something’. The teacher knows it all and proceeds to fill the next generation with facts, empty jars that need filling. Don’t get me wrong, facts are important, it is the manner in which we acquire them which I question. The good teacher excites a response, an eagerness to learn.

And Samuel Beckett….

Beckett wrote in Worstword Ho…“Ever tried, ever failed, never mind, try again, fail better”. I wrote those few words into the Special Needs policy for our school, for facing failure with the assurance of a good teacher by your side, is a road to eventual success.

A matter of respect

In recent years, teachers have had a bad press, blamed for so many of society’s failures and mistakes. And the press has delighted in highlighting the vociferous fringe of the profession. Yet the words of Basil Bernstein, writing in the 60s, are still pertinent- ‘Education cannot compensate for society’. Teachers work within the culture of the times, are moulded by its values, in spite of personal efforts to maintain integrity. The efforts of a good teacher reflect a value system that benefits the child.

Parents and teachers, a still point in a turning world

Parents and teachers should co-operate in the education of young ones. And teachers need to recognise where the child sitting at a table in their classroom comes from. The stress of modern family life inevitably follows them to school, although for a few hours, the school and an understanding teacher, can become a still point in a turning, turbulent world.

And what kind of place it is…

I had these words framed in the entrance hall of our school, they are worth remembering. ‘A good school is known by what it teaches, how it teaches and what kind of place it is’ . That’s worth more than a passing reflection alongside academic results and grades. It’s not just about ‘the Points’. Generosity comes in  many guises.  Maybe one of the greatest acts of generosity is when we give our time and care to those who can benefit from our experience and life story, someone who stopped and listened, someone who taught us how to be ourselves, the good teacher.

And the role of the Church?

The Church has played a significant role in the story of formal education, often led by the dedicated work of religious orders founded on providing opportunity for learning where none existed.

Now, with these Orders in steep decline, there has been a radical change. The teacher is far more likely to come from a secular background and to found teaching in state funded schools.

The integrity of the Church as teacher might also be measured against these principles. ‘What kind of place it is’ is central to its role of teacher of a pilgrim people.


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