“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” – John Dewey
15 months ago I had never heard of Wellington College. I did not know anything about Berkshire nor anywhere in South England really. That was until I stumbled across a twitter advert for a maths helper/sports coach role…
The email went off and within a few days I had been told I would be coming down to teach Cumulative Frequency to fifteen fourth formers (this had to be translated to year 10) who were studying MYP (I didn’t know there was an alternative to GCSE). There were 3 days to prepare to teach my first ever lesson and so I created a powerpoint, did some reading about how to do the job and asked my mom if she could drive me. Little did I realise that going to Wellington College for 9 o’clock from my house meant leaving at half 5 so thank you mother!
Long story short, I felt like it went okay, I asked questions, they answered and generally I got by. Fast forward to where we are now, about to embark on the last week of my first year of teaching and I could not be more grateful for everyone who has helped in some way. What I’ve learnt about teaching would take forever to write but what I’ve learnt about being a good, whole person cannot be written in words.
Teaching is far more than just knowing a subject and explaining it well to people who don’t know it yet. Teaching, for me, is about unlocking someone’s excitement. It is about creating an atmosphere whereby young people feel comfortable being uncomfortable. It is about ensuring everyone in the room feels valued and everyone in the room feels successful. Teaching maths is not always easy and certainly most students do not find learning maths easy all the time. This is fine! The biggest thing I have learnt this year is that we can make mistakes. Heck, we can make 100 as long as the 101st time we try something, we don’t make the same one and we have the courage to keep trying.
I think back to that interview lesson and I had some lesson objectives which I clearly outlined and I told them what we were going to do then we did that. We finished with a plenary and I was happy that all seemed to understand cumulative frequency better than they did when they walked in. The activities used were fun, there was some humour (yes that can happen in a maths classroom!) and everyone got a chance to talk. ‘Well done, me’ I thought.
How many mistakes were made? How many times did the students veer off the path I had chosen? Who was this lesson about? The answers to these are 0, 0 and me respectively – I felt good about myself and I felt happy with the job I had done. Dewey said failure is instructive…I did not allow that to happen. I ensured that mistakes were corrected before they could be made. How much learning was done? Did these guys truly understand cumulative frequency? Do they understand why it is important? Do they know anything about where it may come up? Did I let them ask any questions about things outside of the maths classroom/syllabus?
As part of my induction here, I had to be part of a “foundational coaching course” led by Graydin and one of the other teachers. This was mandatory for all new members of staff and is an integral part to how Wellington runs and is at the heart of all tutor-tutee relationships. I will not go into massive detail about what it is but coaching has quite literally transformed my whole perception on teaching and sports coaching. I don’t remember the whole course (it was 12 hours in my first month of a quite hectic teaching job) but I do remember two things.
1) The course leader, Quinn, threw a pen on the floor about 10 yards away and said “what’s stopping me getting the pen?”. I remember thinking what on Earth is she on about? This was an example to show how we look at things and being able to critically analyse situations. What are the potential barriers and what can we do to get around these? The thing that was so brilliantly simple about this show was that every single answer offered seemed to be accepted as correct. There were some answers such as “nothing” or others commenting “it’s 10 yards away” or “you can’t reach it” or “you don’t want to go and get it”. Not a single one of these was shoo-shooed nor were any of them declared correct. Quinn asked a question of every single answer. For example, she would ask “what can I do to reach it? How can I use others here to help me?”. This was in a room of 30 superbly clever people (and myself) and yet she was making picking up a pen into a 5 minute discussion. Of that 5 minutes, her questions probably totalled 30 seconds, we were talking for 4 and a half minutes. We were discussing and we were asking and answering questions. By the end, we had a true understanding of things to consider about picking up the pen and it was easy to make the link with outside world and perhaps bigger issues.
2) The second thing I remember was two pictures we were shown. One was a gift-wrapped present and the other was a seed in the ground. The metaphor was that we shouldn’t give people gifts, we should allow them to plant seeds and see what grows. We should be willing to let our students have a go and find out what does and does not work. Let them get lost on their journey and enjoy it when they find out how to get out or where they went wrong. Giving someone a present is fine and it makes you feel good and they get instant satisfaction but they have not done anything. They have just unwrapped it. This is similar to my interview lesson. I had all the answers and I gave them to the class. They didn’t work very hard for it, they did not go on their own journey but in the short term, we got to where we were trying to get to.
The “giving a gift” approach is fine if we were thinking short term but the reason I love mathematics, indeed the reason I love teaching, is we are preparing people for life. Everyone everywhere will find a part of mathematics that resonates with them. They will love something to do with mathematics. This might not be simultaneous equations or algebra or the surface area of a cone but it will be something. The same goes for all subjects. We will find something that we love. As teachers, if we trust that, we can let our students find this on their own.
Examinations and teaching to a syllabus are slight hindrances to this approach because we do at some point have to teach them everything that they might get examined on. I have no idea how to get around this and I’m not even going to pretend I have the slightest clue on this front but I am thoroughly enjoying having a go and seeing what works. I am making mistakes and learning from every single one. When do we tell and when do we coach? Can we coach all the time? Maybe at some point, I will find the answers to these but in the meantime I am enjoying watching the seed grow. I’m glad nobody gave me a present this year and I am thankful for everyone that has helped me along this journey both on and off-road.
With special thanks to Graydin, Wellington College and my mother for driving me down that cold, early morning last March!