Choice of subjects for sixth form and future study can be a tricky subject for schools to advise upon. When the time comes for options, we talk to students about choosing wisely and keeping options open.
We may talk to parents about being supportive of their child’s decisions. We hope that the students will make reasoned choices.
But most of the time, if we are completely honest, we know that subject choice comes down to the experience of students in the classroom. Requests to change subjects sometimes come in because of the teacher assigned to the class, and we know that the right teacher can have a significant impact on subject uptake.
“We know that subject choice comes down to the experience of students in the classroom.”
I spend a considerable proportion of my time looking at teaching and learning in schools across the world and supporting the recruitment of teachers for the same organisations. I often reflect on my own school experience in this context when thinking about what we want from our teachers.
At 16, I opted to study sciences, largely due to the character and approach of my teachers. There was something about my science teachers which set them apart, which made the subjects shine for me and made me eager to know more. Judith taught biology. Diminutive, but fierce beyond imagination, she had a depth of knowledge which meant that no question defeated her. She cared about our success and took absolutely no prisoners in her teaching. She did not carry us and did not provide us with copious prepared notes to ensure curriculum coverage. Judith set the bar high and expected us to make it.
Dave taught physics, and his relaxed enthusiasm for the subject carried me through O-levels and the, ahem, challenging first year of A-level, when it looked like the maximum I would ever score on a paper was 20 per cent. He would pick me up, dust me off, and get me enthused again, and I did improve: to the point of giving serious consideration to reading physics at university.
“Dave’s relaxed enthusiasm for the subject carried me through O-levels.”
Then, in chemistry, there was Tony. Tony, with his interesting asides and tendency to blow things up on a whim, or to fire a completely random chemistry question at anyone who he thought wasn’t really paying attention. Tony was the teacher who took me to the school’s librarian and told them to find me some more challenging chemistry books “because this girl is going to study chemistry at degree level, if not higher.” I read those books until 4am the night I took them home.
At NLCS schools we have the highest aspirations for every student, and we want them to be stretched to achieve their best during their time with us. We don’t want to push students to breaking point and nor do we want to play it safe and hand everything to them on a plate with endless worksheets and pre-prepared notes. Judith embodied that no-excuses culture. We needed to do own our learning and she didn’t dumb down because she knew we needed to be responsible for our progress if we were to be successful.
Second, we are looking for a genuine love of subject in our teachers. One test for me is whether a candidate “lights up” when talking about their subject. Not about teaching the subject, but the subject itself. I delight in the sort of answer where you can see the fire in the candidate’s eyes because they are genuinely excited about the topic.
“He would pick me up, dust me off, and get me enthused again.”
These answers often conclude with ‘I’m so sorry, I’m rambling on about x.’ They aren’t rambling- they are demonstrating the type of enthusiasm which encourages us to want to hear more. Dave gave this to me, with his enthusiasm for all things physics and obvious excitement when he came across something new. I recall some strange results from an experiment with radioisotopes which kept us in discussion for weeks.
Finally, we look for an absolute belief in young people and their ability to rise to the challenge. This is where Tony comes in. Had he not taken me to the library and painted the picture of the girl studying chemistry at university, I may not have chosen to study biochemistry.
“We look for a belief in young people and their ability to rise to the challenge.”
Of course, we want our teachers to be able to do the nuts and bolts of the role – the administrative tasks, an ability to meet deadlines etc. But to a degree, these things are a side issue – we have all met the mercurial teacher who has the school’s leaders tearing their hair out over their missed deadlines and tendency towards chaos, but who is a wonderful and inspirational classroom practitioner.
What matters most is what happens in the classroom, the magic of a teacher who is genuinely joyful about their subject and sharing their knowledge with others. These are the teachers we don’t forget, like Judith, Dave, and Tony, who I can still recall some 35 years after they last taught me, whilst many others have long faded from memory.
This is why we put all our teachers through a rigorous selection process. Anyone can talk the talk, say the right buzzwords, appear to keep up with the latest teaching trends. This may tick the boxes for some, but it’s not enough for us.
“Great exam results come from students with a desire to know as much as possible.”
We want teachers who are prepared to follow the passions of their students, who know that the lesson plan is a starting point and not the goal, and that outstanding exam results come from students with a desire to know as much as possible, not from endless drilling on exam technique.
We want those who understand that teaching is not just about content coverage. These teachers, with high expectations without hothousing, passion for subject and a genuine connection with and belief in young people, are harder to come by. But when you have a community of them in your school, it can be a truly inspirational place for everyone to be.