Thursday, November 27, 2008

'Aspirational' not inspirational teachers

My two teenage boys are 15 today. They’re twins and as different as the sun and moon. One’s tall (6’3”) the other shorter (5’7’), one is left-handed, one right-handed, one loves music and drama, the other maths and science, one’s chatty, the other quiet. Having twins is like running a live genetics experiment. It also allows you to do double-blind trials (only joking).

I often show their pictures at conferences and explain that much of what I’ve learnt about technology and motivation has come from observing or talking to them. As their mother drove me to the station we were talking about their teachers. It stuck us that they’ve had two absolutely aspirational teachers in their life, neither who work in schools. I use the word ‘aspirational’ as I think it’s what marks the following observations apart from the traditional ‘inspirational’ model. This is not to decry the many excellent teachers they’ve had in schools. (There’s some outstanding teachers in their school and I’ve been lucky enough to witness the drama teacher and others give absolute master classes in teaching.) It’s just that there’s more to life than school.

Howard – master teacher
The first is a guy called Howard Mayes, who teaches them both Tae Kwon Do. Both boys love and deeply respect this guy, who’s been teaching them four or five times a week for six years. Howard loves what he does with a passion, enjoying teaching and training as much as the hundreds of students aged 3-63 that attend his classes. He’s also a master psychologist, knowing just when to praise and when to correct. He’s taken his students to world class level (including one of my boys who won a silver medal at last World Championships), the other has won medals at national level. Even more impressive is the way he’s taught our boys to teach others. They now get paid to teach younger kids, under his supervision, and have learnt stacks from this experience. Interestingly, in school, they are rated rather low on marks in PE, as they don’t like rugby or football!

As parents we owe Howard a lot, and I can’t praise this sport enough. Originally from Korea, via Chine, Tae Kwon Do has become a massive sport with more practitioners worldwide than any other martial art. Indeed, it is more than a sport, as it focuses on control, trust, self-discipline, respect for others, concentration of mind, flexibility, high levels of fitness, as well as defence. Just as importantly, it’s about instilling intrinsic motivation in the person. The pupil strives to become the master by mastering themselves. Many parents are turning to disciplines like this, as it develops the whole person, giving them a range of useful life skills.

Phil – maestro teacher
OK, now for the second inspirational teacher. This guy Phil is my boy’s (the musical one) drum teacher. He’s over 60 but as lively and quick-witted as any 20 year old. Phil has taught drumming to hundreds of people, sometimes teaching the sons and daughters of those he taught years ago. Again, he’s a master with young teenagers, taking them at just the right pace, with lots of encouragement but also doses of discipline. He organises master classes with famous drummers and gets them to help out at gigs. Phil has the experience and personality to be a great teacher. This, for me, matters a lot. Playing the drums has opened up a whole new world for my son. He’s been introduced to jazz, swing, samba, percussion and all sorts of musical styles and now plays in a band of mixed age every Friday night. He loves it when the old guys get on down with Mambo No 5.

Of course, Phil really knows what matters and that’s practice. This is what distinguishes many school teachers from people like Phil. School teachers are not, in my experience, big on homework, because they place undue emphasis on the classroom and their own role as teachers. People like Phil see their role as mentors. The classes are just the starting gates. It’s what they do on their own that counts.

Lessons learnt?
Sorry, if this all sounds like proud dad stuff, but the important lesson here is that, for many parents, the learning outside of school is often of a higher quality than that in school. Why is this?

The lessons, for me, are clear:
1. Mixed-age peer groups are often better than single-aged peer groups
2. Trained teachers are not always the best teachers
3. Teachers have to really love what they do
4. Teachers must win the respect of their learners
5. Teachers must win the respect of parents
6. Teachers have to like the kids they teach
7. Teaching must be aspirational
8. It’s all about practice
9. Learners like being asked to teach
10. Schools need to embrace those who teach outside of schools
11. Good teachers make students aspire to succeed

This last point is important. Inspirational teachers seem to me to be performers and often appear to be the ideal. Great teachers play a more important role, making learners aspire to higher levels of achievement. They understand that it's not about the teacher but turning the learner into a teacher to both themselves and others. There's a big difference.

My kids hate missing any lesson from these two guys, which is a little different from their attitude to school. I would like to see at least one afternoon a week given to paid external teachers. At the very least I’d like to see external teaching and learning recognised by schools and examination boards. Shouldn’t a student who is at the absolute peak of physical fitness, trains five times a week and competes


John Wootton UK said...

Government intervention in education has ruined the profession. They have realised that their is a growing movement agaianst target-setting, so now they are moving back towards more pastoral matters and the extended schools agenda ... which is where your article comes in ... The external influence of 'adults other than teachers' was around in the 80s and for the best teachers, has always been part of their repertoire ... The education world is a circle with the very best educators remaining at the centre of the circle, retaining the correct core philosophies ...


Anonymous said...

I really like the distinction - never thougth about it that way and its thought provoking.

I recognise much in what you say from my eldest two girls and karate. Their teacher could not be described academic in a traditional sense but he is a master of his trade both the physical and mental. His other main skill is in people development. He teaches that karate is a journey towards perfection and while none of them will reach this goal, they must continue to strive towards it. To have this explained and shown to me by two enthusisatic 9 and 7 year olds gets me thinking. Luckiliy this guy is actively involved in schools in the authority and credit to Gateshead LA they are actively open to skills improvement wherever it may come from. The kids get similar input from drama, music, tv, history and science specialists on a freelance basis.

No excuses for the little blighters now.

John Levis said...

Really you are the great inspiring teacher. Thanks to admin for posting this information.

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