Teaching is a performance profession like sport, drama, music. There’s quite a simple definition for what this is: when you’re doing it, can you press pause and ask for help? No – the show must go on. As a result, the focus of your improvement as a performer – your very integrity as a professional, in fact – should be based on being prepared for the big show. How do the other professions do it? In crude summary, I would put it as follows:
Plan > Rehearse > Perform
Or for Rehearse, substitute ‘practise‘ or ‘train‘. Currently, a lot of teaching goes like this:
Plan > Perform
A theatre company wouldn’t read a new play on Monday night and perform it on Tuesday morning (though please correct me if there is a company that would do this). Barcelona wouldn’t field a team that hadn’t practised its tiki-taka drills ad infinitum. Teachers need to work out a way of rehearsing. Or practising or training or whatever you want to call it.
Practising is deliberate, and deliberately artificial. To get good at something you don’t just do more of it. After a certain point, you have to pull it apart and isolate individual elements of what is a complex process in order to improve it. It reminded me of this clip a teacher friend of mine sent me a while ago of a cello lesson led by Yo Yo Ma. Tell me that this isn’t this minimum level of detailed, methodical, deliberate, practice you’d expect from someone who charged you money to see them perform!
Watch in particular how he isolates a specific skill – even going so far as to tell one of his students to ignore the notes (!) at 1’27” to get the technique correct first.
Yo Yo Ma is giving detailed and specific feedback to adults, but there is a contract of mutual-respect. Listen also to how mature and professional the conversation is at 3’05” – 4’00”. We tell our pupils that feedback is a gift, so we should be actively looking for some for ourselves at every opportunity.
When I practised, I became “bad” at stuff I’m normally “good” at. But that’s good. I stumbled over basic phrases, over-thought the words I used, forgot to do basic things like ask my “pupils” to put their pens down and look at me as I practised a scripted instruction. Basically, I felt like a novice teacher again – and this was a great thing because I was able to take apart my usual habits and make small, considered, changes to phrases I’d normally use unthinkingly. For example, when asking a question, I will now make a concerted effort to do it as follows:
Questions – Pause – Name [of student to answer]
rather than: Name – Question which is what I would unthinkingly do.
Why? Because this small tweak is more likely to make more of my students pay attention and think about the question, than if they already know I’m not asking them before I’ve even posed the question.
Practising with other teachers is awkward in a good way. I felt out of my comfort zone (basically role-playing with strangers and colleagues), but this made me focus and learn more.
We can learn from army officers too. And this has nothing to do with behaviour management or ‘school discipline’. Doug Lemov shared an anecdote about a professor at West Point who uses cold call in all his classes. (Cold call is when the teacher calls on specific students regardless of whether they have raised their hands to answer a question.) The effect of this is that students can’t ‘hide’ in his class because they might be asked a question at any moment. This is crucial because as an army officer they need to know what to do because if they don’t people might die. Their teacher realises this and constructs the lessons in such a way that all students must pay attention most of the time.
We can predict what will happen in our lessons, just not always when. Work out the scenarios that might happen, write a script for what you’ll do in that scenario (literally – write down what you will do and say!), and practise it.
This isn’t an ‘American’ way of doing things. It’s just an open, purposeful, collaborative, time-efficient, and, above-all, professional way of getting better at getting better.