Send in the Clowns

Becoming a great teacher is hard won. You can’t reduce it to a set of formulas or put it on a spreadsheet. You can’t sum it up in a database, or map it in a study. You can’t say ‘just do it like this and all will be fine’. It is a process that takes years, and that is how it should be. Because it is about people. If you’re a teacher reading this, it is about you. A flow of new teachers enters the profession, supported by teachers who have been there and done that. You have to learn what works for specific children, in a specific context, at a specific time. You have to build your knowledge and hone your technique and find your own approach. It’s not easy.

You can’t jump the gap by giving a set of rules that apply to everyone, so please don’t let Ofsted or Old Andrew tell you it ‘has to be’ like anything. Because it doesn’t work like that. You build your own style slowly: you listen to others, you experiment, you try things with your children in your school in your context. You find out what works for you. This may not be the same thing that works for me. At the heart of teaching is the teacher. So it’s really, really, really important that we trust in our teachers’ professional judgement. Otherwise we might as well send in the clowns. Oh, don’t bother, they’re here.

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19 Responses to Send in the Clowns

  1. Kris Boulton says:

    To my mind, ‘sending in the clowns’ sounds more like what we’ll have if we ascribe to the model you describe.

    Infinitely complex, infinitely unique, no body of knowledge, ceaseless guesswork and experimentation… How any countless human beings shall we fail while half a million of us tinker around the edges?

    This is just such an extreme position. There are certainly elements of the job that need be learnt through time and experience – to my mind these are mostly the ones relating to the ‘human’ element of the role; the relationships, as you point out.

    I think there is also a *substantial*, *significant* body of professional knowledge that certainly can be codified and communicated prior to classroom experience. Are you really going to publicly say that there isn’t… ?


  2. suecowley says:

    ‘You have to build your knowledge’. There aren’t many words in this, Kris, but those ones are there.


    • Those words don’t imply the existence of a substantial and significant body of professional knowledge, that can be codified and communicated *prior to classroom experience*. Rather, they imply that the only professional knowledge one can amass is a hit and miss gathering from trial and error over many years, dependent also in part upon having the good fortune to be placed alongside colleagues sufficiently willing and able to support that development.

      So, I have to repeat the question: do you really intend to imply that no such body of professional knowledge can or could exist within teaching?


      • suecowley says:

        If I have to explain what I mean, then I didn’t write this properly or you didn’t read it properly. You have to take from it what you believe is there. Show, not tell.


        • Well the first sentence is tautologically correct, the second is questionable (I’m not so much interesting in making up what you said, as understanding clearly what you are trying to say), and I can’t see how the third is relevant…

          What you seem to be saying, is ‘no-one can tell you how to teach, you have to figure it out for yourself.’ I heard this from several academics during training. In my opinion, it is the single most dangerous and destructive idea in education today. It leads to a mockery of a training regime in which no-one is trained, no-one is qualified in any real sense of the word, and every teacher must waste years of young people’s lives scrambling into a position where they can finally teach effectively.

          It may well be that, as in any job, there is much to be gained from experience. To say therefore that there is nothing to be learnt except through personal experience, that *every single teacher* must teach in some unique, new-found way that uniquely ‘works for them’, however, strikes me as a remarkable detachment from reality.

          I was trying to clarify if that really was what you were trying to say, rather than risk building a straw man…


  3. essexnqt says:

    Reblogged this on Diary of an NQT and commented:
    This has made me feel so much better! My head is currently making comments about my ability to teach because I am not teaching in the formulaic way he wants!


  4. suecowley says:

    Thank you. I’m really glad to have helped.


  5. suecowley says:

    No, I wasn’t saying that Kris. 🙂


  6. Paul Garrard says:

    I can see that and I’m not a teacher, and never likely to be. When it comes to learning there is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution imho


  7. bt0558 says:

    A great post and an interesting debate.

    I understand that it is suggested by some that to become an expert you have to practice for thousands of hours over a number of years, unless perhaps you are a prodigy. To become an expert one has to make mistakes, we tell our students this and of course it is supported in the literature (body of knowledge). Once expertise is developed, expert teachers see problems as deep structures whereas novices tend to see problems according to their surface structures.

    Deep understanding does indeed come with extensive practice over a long period. Much knowledge is gained, tested and evaluated along the way.Many teachers went through a PGCE/Bed course or something similar. Others have subsequently engaged in further study, and they both use this knowledge in their practice and learn from applying it to their practice.

    “to my mind these are mostly the ones relating to the ‘human’ element of the role”.

    To my mind the ‘human element’ is the only element and everything teachers do should be focused on the human element.Focusing on the ideal process can unfortunately ignore much of the human element and this I feel is not a positive thing.

    I agreed with every word of the blogpost. One ideal process, passed on via direct instruction is for me not the answer. Lovely song and it’s use in this context was inspirational. Great to listen to it again while reading this one. Thank you


  8. suecowley says:

    Thank you very much. I love the song too, it always sends a shiver down my spine.


  9. bt0558 says:

    Honesty is one of my weaknesses. Wouldn’t make good SMT.

    Forgot to say that this I found this bit very disturbing….

    “How any countless human beings shall we fail while half a million of us tinker around the edges? ”

    Making mistakes is the price you pay for expertise and the benefit of the majority. In the end using group work when you should have done a powerpoint never ruined a kid’s life chances as far as I am aware.

    I have a concern that they are filling (in a direct instruction sort of a way) Teach First people with this sort of stuff. I may be wrong and I hope I am, but the mind boggles.

    Any teacher who doubts themselves should make an appointment with their GP. (OA et al love the medical analogy).

    Ask them how long it took to become a doctor after they passed their “qualifications”. Ask them how much of their degree they can regurgitate. I know for mine, I did it. She didn’t believe she was failing me, but I soon told her the OA approach. I think she is still laughing.


  10. ‘Becoming a great teacher’…..I have to say that the recent edu-debates tend to revolve around the concept of ‘great’….but, this isn’t a very helpful term. It is too vague and very difficult to define. There are distinctions to be made between teachers who are just starting out and those that are far more established. The needs of the first group are vastly different to the possibilities of the second group (the former often focused on survival). To get to the point where it is possible to experiment with approaches without too much risk of doing harm takes time (which will vary depending on the circumstances). It is the first group who need the most help and support; so, a more pertinent question might be…..Is there a set of basics that can be communicated to new teachers that will allow them to start the journey on a firm footing, and allow them to be relatively effective teachers as they move to the point where their expertise grows and they can intelligently head towards ‘expert’ teacher, finding their own unique pathway to ‘great’.


    • Al Coops says:

      Teaching is like parenting in that you learn it on the job and it consumes you – without a body of knowledge to draw on. The first child: an experiment, a bit hit and miss if you like and you spend many hours chastising yourself for being a less than perfect parent. Second child: the L plates have come off and you look smuggly on at all those first timers. Third child: you think you’ve cracked it, you suddenly realise it’s absolutely fine to be a ‘good enough’ parent. Will your first child (the ‘experiment’) face years of CBT as a result? Probably not.

      Practise makes perfect in all things.


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