I never trained as a teacher. I had applied for a place on a PGCE at the University of London, but after a couple of months of waiting, and with a pile of debt and nowhere to live, I took the first job I was offered. That just happened to be in a private, residential sixth-form college – what was, at the time, known as a “crammer”.
I learned very little about the realities of teaching large groups of students. But in retrospect, I can see that as an untrained teacher I was very lucky in being able to work with small groups of highly motivated students – in other words, to discover how students learn in something close to ideal conditions.
The following year, I got my first real teaching job. It was at Christopher Wren School, a boys’ school on the White City Estate in west London. Again, I was lucky, but for a very different reason.
“The Wren”, as it was known at the time, was what we would today call “challenging”. I started work the same morning as an economics teacher who walked off-site at morning break and was never seen again.
I was lucky because just about every teacher struggled to keep order and, more importantly, just about every teacher was willing to acknowledge the difficulties they had just getting through the day.
‘Tough’ lessons for student teachers
A dozen years later, when I was running a PGCE course, I found that this was not an isolated example. It turned out that student teachers who needed additional teaching practice did better when placed at a “tough” school than an “easy” school, because the staff tended to be more supportive when everyone had difficulties.
My teaching improved rapidly at the Wren and a lot of what I learned could probably be learned only through actual practice. However, I know some things now that it would have been really useful to be told by someone when I started teaching.
Some of these are things that were not known 40 years ago. Some are things that I might have learned about had I done a PGCE (although I doubt it). And some are things that I knew at a cerebral level but didn’t incorporate into my practice (the knowing-doing gap).
So here is my list of the nine things I wish I had known when I started teaching. TES subscribers can read the list in full here.
- Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care
This phrase is generally attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, although it does not appear in any of his writings or recorded speeches. Whatever the source, it captures a key point for teaching. Teaching is about relationships, and these relationships are best when they involve mutual respect.
When I ran a PGCE, many of the student teachers told me that they were worried about whethertheir pupils would respect them. I generally replied that I was more worried about whether they would respect their pupils. When teachers start from the basic assumption that the pupils in their class are people – sometimes little people, to be sure, but people, with all the human rights that we accord to adults – then good things tend to follow.
This idea was beautifully encapsulated by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, who, when asked to define good teaching, said it was “ideas as conveyed through relationships” (Moyers, 1989).
Here are the next 8, which you can read in detail in this week’s issue of TES:
- Learning is a change in long-term memory
- Memory is the residue of thought
- Learning requires forgetting
- If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else
- The answers of confident students are a bad guide to what the rest of the class is thinking
- The only thing that matters about feedback is what students do with it
- Effective group work requires individual accountability
- Students have deep insights into their own learning
Dylan Wiliam is emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London and the author of several books on education