How We Teach (Part 1): An individual sprint or a long-distance relay?

The Sprint: all about me?

Think for a moment about the 100m sprint event at the Olympics. For years, each runner has trained day and night to qualify for this 10-second race, qualifying at a local, regional and then national level. Thousands upon thousands of hours have been exhausted to stand on the Olympic stage for this over-in-a-flash event.

At the start of the race, each runner takes their time stepping up to their blocks, going through various warm-up exercises, stress-reducing routines and performance-focused visualisation of what the race will look like – including how they will approach the starting line, how they will explode out of the starting blocks, the stride with which they’ll sprint forward, and how they will, with one final burst of speed, push forward to finish the race.

Foot by foot they place their spiked footwear into the blocks, strategically place their hands on the starting line, prop themselves up and wait for the gun. Years of preparation have led to this 10-second glory-seeking race. Blood, sweat, tears, study and routine have led them to this stadium, and their national and international legacy depends on what happens in these short seconds.

On your mark…Get set…BANG!” The gun sounds! The sprinters explode out of the blocks, muscling forward toward the finish line!

And then it’s over.

One (wo)man gets the glory. One (wo)man gets the accolades. One (wo)man gets the fame. One (wo)man cashes in on the millions in sponsorship deals. They have certainly earned it!

We all know teaching isn't like that. Sorry.

Teaching: a long-distance relay with little glory

Teaching, as you have likely and soberly discovered, is not a 100m sprint. It’s not about you or I being seen as the expert, though we very well may be one. However necessary it is to know what and how to teach, it is more necessary to know our students and how to engage them well. However necessary it is to set clear objectives, to know our subjects, to use our time effectively, to assess and target-set… this is not the be-all and end-all of teaching.

For decades, classroom/teacher/OFSTED observations have solely looked at these skills (though this is changing!). I know from my own experience that, in many ways, teaching has been about me displaying these “expert” skills to be seen as a highly effective classroom practitioner and get the Outstanding lesson observation.

But here's what I’ve learnt and am now learning:

Teaching is more like a 3200m relay than a glory-obtaining 100m sprint. We share responsibilities, accolades and experiences. We exchange ideas, pass the baton to teachers who will hopefully do better than us, and we often push others forward instead of promoting ourselves. We create opportunities for, and work together with, our kids to provide meaningful learning experiences – academically, socially, and relationally.

Let's bring this together...

Watkins' 3 Ways of Viewing Classrooms

Watkins’ first Way of Viewing Classrooms (above, left column) is a GREAT starting point. It is mostly about "proving yourself" versus "improving yourself" (see my last We Get To Teach Blog post and take the test to learn your approach). However, we are not meant to stay here because, if we do, it will become all about “my skills”; “my abilities”; “me proving myself”; “me being better than you”. It's just how humans work.

In his book The Five Levels of Leadership, John Maxwell might refer to this as "Positional Leadership" where after time we become over-reliant on our position for our sense of importance and self-worth (i.e. our title is what matters most; a manager as opposed to a leader). I call it "iSyndrome". This sounds something like "I'm the leader/manager so you have to do what I say," or "I'm in charge now so you have to...".

iSyndrome is where we build our personal or professional lives (foundation) on whether or not we perform well or are seen to be the expert. This is not a solid foundation, but is instead a house of cards as opinions of us can change from day-to-day and person-to-person!

What about teacher modelling skills?

Not all teacher-led learning is bad, and it's very important to remember this. Modelling (direct instruction) is one of the best ways to teach new skills to individuals with learning difficulties because we directly model what something can/should look or sound like. This is particularly useful in reading, including word identification, spelling, reading with expression and other key skills. When I go into schools and work with teachers, parents, special needs coordinators and teaching assistants, many of the strategies I introduce are initially to be teacher-led. However, the strategies I introduce don't stop there. I always talk about various multi-sensory strategies as well as the importance of teachers training up students to run strategy sessions with other kids, thus promoting peer learning and creating a social reward because - let's face it - kids would much rather be affirmed by their friends/peers than by the middle-aged teacher! That said, I I still think I'm a pretty cool guy.

I have clearly slanted this article to move away from Watkins' "first column" (above), but I want to point out how much I value direct instruction/teacher-led learning in specific situations. I do it regularly when teaching literacy skills. Direct instruction/teacher-led learning is the first step in the learning journey, but it is not the final destination. The journey toward collaboration requires skills and ideas that can be modelled by a teacher (modelling), mastered by the student (independence), and worked out and experienced with others (collaboration). This enables our kids to see further and achieve more than if they simply lived a life of "independence".

Healthy mindsets: Leaving a legacy

I’m no longer as keen to be seen as the sprinter- the Luke Skywalker-Usain Bolt-like-hero of the classroom who gets all the glory, as much as I am to be the co-learner - the one who comes alongside students to co-create opportunities with them so they can learn, grow, develop and reach their potential (a taller, less-green version of Yoda perhaps?). It's messier but it's also a lot more fun! Admittedly, I'm not there yet but it's where I'd like to be.

While the fame and adoration of being a Usain Bolt or Luke Skywalker would be nice, I guess I’d rather champion others and be like Yoda running a 3200m relay.