What makes great teaching?

Before the summer, I asked on Twitter for advice on making a department handbook. The overwhelming response? Don’t. No-one will read it, it’s oppressive and not useful, it’s a bureaucratic tick-box exercise.

Much as I sympathised with such views, having new teachers join the department, and tending to spend much of my time (literally) running around the corridors of the school, I felt these teachers needed something to refer to when I (or a seasoned teacher) could not be found.

Brimming with hubris, I decided to open the handbook with “Teaching and Learning”, and proceeded to randomly write down ideas I had for what I think makes great teaching. It’s by no means an exhaustive, or even logical, list, but I’d be interested in the thoughts of others. I have pasted below exactly from the handbook, word for word.

Relationships

  • Like your students and tell them
  • Value what they say in class – ensure everyone is listening and taking note when anyone is speaking
  • Call home positively for as many students as you can. Do this early on and save yourself many negative calls later
  • Be there for your students emotionally, but remember you’re their teacher – refer on any pastoral issues promptly
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning and be honest with you about what they need more of. Be responsive to their needs

Mindset

  • Believe in the unlimited potential of all your students to succeed. Share this belief with them
  • Challenge your students to do better, even when they have “achieved” their “target” grade
  • Remind students who aren’t there that they aren’t there yet – further effort will not be in vain

Goals

  • Set clear goals for each lesson, each week, each term and unit of work. Share these goals with students

Feedback

  • Ensure written feedback is timely
  • Allow students time to ask you questions about your feedback
  • Give students time to respond and correct errors

Questioning

  • Challenge student answers – get them to develop their ideas further
  • Never accept “I don’t know” – always ask another student to help out so they can repeat the answer
  • At the same time, ensure all your students know “I don’t know” is fine to admit, as long as they show themselves ready to learn after saying this
  • Bounce questions to other students to answer
  • Practice hands down questioning regularly so all students are listening and ready
  • Aim to speak to each student at least once in each class

Pratice

  • Independent practice using key skills should be built into every lesson
  • Students should be supported by teachers during independent practice (e.g. circulating and making verbal corrections/suggestions for improvement as students write)
  • Bear in mind you might need to explicitly teach skills you take for granted – e.g. taking notes, the right place for a comma, what a verb is

Behaviour management

  • Expect 100% compliance with 100% of your instructions 100% of the time
  • Phrase instructions positively
  •  Talk about choices
  • Never allow students to “earn off” a sanction
  • Have a no excuses culture – one high standard for all
  • Have high expectations of behaviour – silence means silence; group discussion of the task means no off-task chat
  • Have clear and unchanging policies for all misdemeanours, no matter how minor, that you apply equally to all students (remember that it is not the severity of the sanction that is important but the certainty of the sanction)
  • Give specific praise – verbally and written
  • Narrate positive behaviour you wish to see in all your students
  • Avoid singling out students for chastising publicly, at least the first time you note off-task behaviour

Share and celebrate success

  • In class, verbally and frequently
  • Copy great work and share with the class
  •  Ensure students buy into learning as a desirable success to aim for
  •  Share success stories (students who have made incredible progress through hard work)

Knowledge

  • Have deep knowledge of the material you are teaching which goes beyond what students “need to know”
  • Use material throughout the curriculum to challenge students and empower them to find their place in any walk of life they choose

Discussion

  • Engage students in debate/discussion – allow them to reason through answers and ideas themselves. Challenge them to uphold their thinking. Ensure it is ok to change your mind with new evidence
  • Encourage structured and purposeful student talk

Differentiation

  • Know where your students are, using recent data, marking and assessment for learning in lessons
  • Plan the next step your students need
  • Teach to the top, support at the bottom
  • Tell your Teaching Assistant (if you have one) what they can do to most help your students

CPD

  • Be aware of your strengths and areas for development as a teacher
  • Share good practice (e.g. during department meetings)
  •  Go and see teachers who do something you’d like to do
  •  Raise development needs with your line manager so the department CPD can be appropriate

Assessment

  • Mark student books regularly (at least every 2 weeks)
  • Level or grade student work once a half term. Remember that levels/grades are not as important as developmental feedback, but these levels/grades will help you to complete Assessment Point 1, 2 and 3
  •  After assessments, spend time exploring what students need to do next time to improve

Homework

  • Set students homework which builds on their learning in class
  • Homework should be reasonable
  • Be aware that computer access is an issue for some students
  • Be aware that some students will thrive on “homework extensions”
  • Build in spelling and grammar to your homework routine
  • Set homework on the same day/s every week
  • Ensure students write homework in their planners 

Communication with parents

  •  This can form the key to excellent student progress
  • Try to ensure your first contact with parents is positive
  •  Don’t be afraid to call a meeting with a parent; ask your line manager to attend as well if there are pressing issues you need to discuss in person prior to parents’ evening

Stanley Wells at the Globe

Every English graduate in the world has heard of Stanley Wells, if only for his “Complete Oxford Shakespeare” we were all encouraged to purchase prior to first year. Having been blown away by James Shapiro months earlier, I was keen to enjoy another of the Globe’s “Shakespeare at 450” lectures.

Introduced by the Globe’s education director, Patrick Spottiswoode, as a man who has chosen to “dedicate his life to serving Shakespeare” as well, hyperbolically perhaps but no less entertainingly, as “Shakespeare’s ambassador on earth,” Wells shirked all aplomb with a pithy: “you’re so plosive,” in response.

The topic of the lecture was a run through of the greatest Shakespearean actors (“from Burbage to Brannagh,” as the trailed book will be named). The joy of a great academic is that, though I hadn’t initially thought this was of interest, Wells made it of interest; his talk encompassed so much more than this.

Quoting Laurence Olivier, who as you might expect made a number of appearances in the talk, Wells explained he had limited his exploration to stage actors, rather than film as: “film is the director’s medium, television the writer’s, and stage the actor’s.”

On “colourblind” and “gender blind” productions, of which there is a long theatrical history, Wells posited that the heightened style of Shakespeare’s poetic drama allows greater diversity of interpretation: if the audience is prepared to accept actors talking in verse, they are more likely to accept other differences.

According to Wells, great Shakespearean actors manipulate their bodies and their voices. Olivier was especially noted for seeking to allow the external presentation to reveal the inner, such as his “false face” when playing Macbeth (we were told his wife, Vivien Leigh, had commented of the intensely thick make-up: “first you hear Macbeth’s line, then Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on”). They also allow for an emotional distance while playing – they need to inhabit the character, but also be half-aware of the responses of the audience to ensure they do not speak over laughter or applause, for example. He cited plentiful examples in Shakespeare of actors giving acting advice; Hamlet most notably, but also Coriolanus (when overcome with passion he cries: “like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part”). Great actors can project their understanding and inhabitance of the inner life of the character with every expression and every articulation.

The chief take-away point in my view was that, although the playwright provides the material, the actors “achieve a different reality” with every performance. They recreate Shakespeare nightly, each time rebuilding an intricate and original representation.

More and more, I worry I am not qualified to teach my year 13 students. As a sixth former myself, I remember being moved in English lessons by the enormity of ideas discussed; I remember knowing that literature was without doubt the centre of the world; I remember being exposed to new words and new ideas daily. Years of practice training students to pass (often poorly created, unchallenging) exams has not made me a great teacher of the A-level. I wonder if I am alone in considering that if only more such academic lectures were available for English teachers to attend, we could re-engage with the critical community, and find our joy, passion and all-fulfilling reason in literature again.

Shapiro at the Sam Wanamaker

Having reflected last week at Wellington Festival on my lack of departmental emphasis on subject knowledge, a visit to one of the Globe’s Shakespeare at 450 lectures was well-timed to put my mind at ease. I think we are blessed in English departments across the land to be able to expand our subject knowledge at leisure; certainly, all the English teachers I have met read plentifully, visit theatres and yes – attend lectures.

Arriving, as is my wont, incredibly early, I realized too late that I was standing next to the man himself – a Brooklyn accent caught my ear, and before I knew it he was being whisked into the room. A fellow nerd looked over to me, and I saw my own ridiculous grin reflected in his. “He was right there!” we murmured to each other, in a life-affirming exchange that should warm the hearts of Shakespeare geeks everywhere.

And for the non-Shakespeare geeks, who is Shapiro? Well, he’s fast becoming the celebrity literary critic du jour. Shakespeare will always be in fashion, and Shapiro has maximized his influence through some blockbuster tomes (1599; Contested Will) as well as notable television appearances. Having seen Shapiro’s recent BBC documentary on The Duchess of Malfi, I was especially excited to view the inside of the Globe’s relatively new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker.

Neither disappointed, though the seats were about as comfortable as you would expect from a theatre created by the Globe. James Shapiro came onto the stage to silence an excited applause with a single hand, before explaining how the evening would go: he had, he said, a lecture prepared; he didn’t want to give that to us. He said he fed off such audiences; he wanted to know what we were interested in and that would drive his scholarship. We could ask him any question, on the condition that we stood to ask it, and it “was actually a question, and not a statement with an inflection at the end.”

And there began an evening of audience members asking any random Shakespeare question, and Shapiro answering it. The audience contained a large American contingent, which is still perplexing me but for which I imagine there is an excellent reason. One questioner asked about the reception of history plays in the US as opposed to the UK; Shapiro notes that only Richard III had been staged with success in the USA. The reason? For the UK, the history plays “are never about the past” – they are about now. They tell us as much about the politics of today as they do the politics of the Jacobeans, or indeed of Bosworth Field. Shapiro went on to advocate the importance of relevant Shakespeare, noting he would like to see a production of King Lear referencing the segmenting of Iraq.

On considering alternative “Globe theatres” (apparently they are all over the world), he noted that in an “increasingly godless age”, these outdoor theatres provide a space for us to “celebrate communally.” He also remarked that we’ve probably got the spec wrong for the current Globe – rather than 100 feet, it was probably 75 feet in width; however, as “we’re all fatter now” he still believed it was an authentic experience.

Exploring the theatre-going audience, Shapiro did some magic maths (London: 200,000 people; capacity of theatre being 1,000 people; number of plays a day/week; discounting for elderly and infants) to show that everybody went to the theatre all the time. He described the Jacobeans as “the most educated theatrical audience ever.” Later stories of interest include Ulysses S. Grant’s being cast as Desdemona in an 1840s Texan production of Othello. Despite not going on to play the part, Shapiro mused over the question of his having so directly explored the “mixed” marriage prior to the civil war.

The central message of Shapiro was that “all of Shakespeare’s plays are infused with the politics of the time”, and that we do him most justice when we also infuse him with our current concerns and politics. Asking the question: how did he walk the political line to not be punished for his representations, Shapiro noted that Shakespeare’s preservation came from “asking questions and not giving answers.”

On the authorship controversy, Shapiro noted that for 99% of Shakespearean scholars it simply does not exist. He noted that his own book on it was actually about “why smart people think dumb things,” and shared his joy at rhetorically beating to a pulp the director of Anonymous at its premiere; also delighting in its box office disaster. Shapiro closed this conversation saying he had written this book to “take one for the team”, writing it so that Shakespeare scholars “don’t have to waste another minute” considering it.

Looking forward to his next book, 1606, he mentioned he had felt uneasy about the “Elizabethanisation” of the age – half of Shakespeare’s output is Jacobean, and yet there are not even any critically acclaimed biographies of this king – we know too little about him and his reign.

A final question pivoted him back to the night’s major issue: how did he feel about “modern vs period Shakespeare”? Shapiro warned against the “fetishization” of Shakespeare – concern with doublets and sword-fighting detracts from what we should be concerned with, which is the lines: “the plays speak not only to the distant past but also to Shakespeare’s moment and also to the moment being staged.” He ended with a call to arms to directors everywhere to be always expanding the number of people interested in Shakespeare and who accept him as a part of their lives.

After this tour de force, the audience left buzzing with enthusiasm about the conversation that had just occurred, for with an audience packed with scholars bowing to a great one, the humility of the speaker had been empowering. I noted as I left the theatre, unaccustomed as I am to venture forth on a weeknight, that Shapiro had moved to the foyer to continue the conversation with individuals who were still milling around. A living critical legend.