“You know, when you find yourself having to raise your voice, and your heart starts pounding, and you start realizing that things are not going the way you had planned, it’s a scary feeling. And I know we’ve all been through it. And if it happens to you once, and you’re just starting off, you want to avoid that at all costs.”
Ms Matthews, quoted in ‘Inside Teaching: How Classroom Life Undermines Reform’ by Mary Kennedy
The new school year has begun for teachers across the country. Whether you are a wise veteran or a nervous NQT, the new routines and challenges of the COVID return have likely heightened the typical stresses of returning to school. It is enough to set your heart fluttering, or even pounding.
Ms Matthews proved to be a science teacher of over twenty-six years in the classroom when interviewed by the brilliant researcher, Mary Kennedy, as part of her research of classroom practice and the impact of political policies in the United States. Matthews’s explanation of conservative (small ‘c’) habits in the classroom being driven by the expediency of managing behaviour is a handy reminder of what so many teachers really care about.
Reading the words of Ms Matthews is enough to spark my own fear-fuelled flashbacks of early behaviour struggles. That feeling of being alone, out at sea, thrashing away in isolation with a tricky group of teens, brings home what can prove the visceral reality of teaching. It is a truth rarely discussed during optimistic INSET introductions.
As the school year starts, teachers have to consider an array of new routines, new pupils, curriculum content, and school priorities. This year perhaps more than any other. It is enough to see a couple of INSET days prove insufficient to support teachers of all stages and stripes.
Why September changes and improving teaching is so difficult
Mary Kennedy looks at the classroom with an interest in how policy-maker reforms may lead to positive changes. What she reveals, in her lesson observations and interviews (though the US context is of course different to ours), is that teachers are interested, even subsumed, in the daily grind of their classroom routine.
The ideas and debates discussed on INSET days, or grand plans and leadership priorities, can be of interest – supported with passion even – but ultimately they can fade in the face of other more pressing priorities, such as keeping 30 pupils on task.
A relevant issue then for school leaders, following busy INSET sessions, is this sobering truth:
“’Nearly all reform efforts have provided knowledge or guidance to teachers, yet most have failed to produce consistent or persistent changes in practice. Often, in fact, teachers claim that their practice is changed substantially as a result of professional development, but observers are unable to see the differences’.” (Inside Teaching, p13)
Despite the best intentions, even busy teachers are tethered to the minute details of moving between classrooms, fending off disturbances, and maintaining pupil behaviour. Kennedy shows how teachers in her study were “motivated by a fear of distractions” – caring most about classroom management, even to the degree of suppressing intellectual engagement and limiting setting their students challenging work for fear of excessive interest!
Kennedy’s research throws doubt on the notion that curriculum is what teachers care about most:
“The second main area of concern reflected in teachers’ intentions is fostering student learning. This is a main concern distinct from concerns about the content itself, and has to do not with what to teach, but rather how to teach. Intentions that reflected this area of concern tended to focus on finding the best ways to stimulate, motivate, assess, and so forth.” (Inside Teaching, p45)
A passion for science or great literature is no doubt important to many teachers, but this drive usually isn’t enough to manage the complexity of what is actually learned by pupils. Changing the curriculum content could receive notional support, and great intellectual enjoyment from staff, but if the reform focuses only on the content, and not on the challenge of fostering student learning with more difficult curriculum content, then it may be destined to fail.
Perhaps surprisingly, Kennedy found that there were teachers that had “substantial content knowledge but still didn’t know how to respond to ideas”. Managing behaviour, sensitively directing learning, and curriculum content, all interact in complex ways that prove challenging, even for experienced teachers like Ms Matthews.
In Kennedy’s research, teachers were interested in universal access to knowledge, but this had to be matched by “universal participation”. How to best teach the curriculum (what we would term pedagogical content knowledge – or PCK) and how to manage behaviour appeared to dominate the cares of busy teachers at all career stages.
Reforming practices or establishing new routines in the classroom is hard. This academic year, countless new small problems may dominate the cares of teachers. For example, moving from class to class, starting the lesson in a way that reduces distraction, adapting group tasks to move individual approaches, will all need time to adapt and bed in.
Of course, after the new school year settles down, leaders will hear about what their teachers are really caring about. Grand plans and curriculum changes may need circumscribing in the light of more routine issues of managing the classroom and minimising disruptions.
Teachers hearts fluttering and pounding will likely prove a mainstay of the September restart, but beyond the ‘back to school’ fears, teachers will need most support to nurture their daily routines. It is managing the daily flow of interactions and limiting distracting that teachers likely care about most.