Teach education

Reflections of an IB science teacher


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3,000 miles can make for a great change of perspective

Last year I moved from a school in Barnsley, North England,UK, to a school in Jumeirah, Dubai, UAE. And I want my first blog post to reflect on the question “What’s changed?”

Learning Culture

The first big change for me was the learning culture in Dubai. In Barnsley, a lot of students were from families that had encountered mass unemployment and job loss for those educated and uneducated alike. I felt a culture of distrust among students and it was a daily challenge to convince them that education was a gateway to great things. This made for a stark contrast with Dubai, where most students were from families who are doing very well because they did very well in school – their parents might be lawyers, engineers, or doctors and as a result, a lot of these students are comparably well motivated for school.

Non-contact Hours

My non-contact hours were once used shuffling seating plans in a hopeless bid to separate the talkative majority by splitting up the well-behaved minority. Or preparing various behaviour management techniques. Or following up the previous lesson’s behaviour reports and lunchtime detentions.

Now? Two words: Planning and marking. My students will run through roughly four times the volume of questions, tasks, and project work that my previous students would. And further to that, they will expect feedback the moment they click “Save”.

Inquiry

The single biggest change is one that I’m sure I’ll spend the majority of my time blogging about, because it is the single biggest mind shift I have experienced. And that is the shift from delivering teacher driven, content based lessons to student driven, inquiry based lessons.

When I left the UK this was a word that was being used a lot in teaching and learning sessions and educational blogs everywhere. But inside the schools I worked in and visited, I saw very little evidence of it successfully, or even seriously, being implemented. I am sure that there are many schools across the UK that are in fact doing a fantastic job at this, but in my experience there was more “talk” on this than there was “walk”. However, not for one moment did I think that teachers were the culprits for this. We were, and I believe still are, working in an environment in the UK where the way in which we are told to teach, and the way in which our students and our lessons are being assessed are not mutually agreeable. It is not possible to both give students the time and the freedom that is required for successful inquiry and have them score as highly in standardized tests as students that have learned by rote – particularly when the specification for these tests is seemingly designed to fill every classroom hour.

So to summarize before I spend my entire first post ranting , it has been refreshing to enter a curriculum which appears to be more supportive of fostering inquiry based skills in students. And one of the reasons I have started this blog is to reflect on various technology or techniques that I have implemented into my classroom to aid inquiry based learning.


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You are what you teach

I am a science teacher. I represent science to roughly 210 teenagers.

I’ve carefully selected that word, represent. Because that’s exactly what I do and if you teach a subject in a secondary school somewhere, that’s exactly what you do, too.

To date I’ve taught at five different schools and at every school I have seen a wide variety of ways in which the teacher-student relationship is bridged by the teacher. These range from grossly over-friendly, through professionally distant, to downright vindictive bullying. Today I’m going to talk about how our current perspective on the dangers of misjudging this is leading the majority of teachers (perhaps yourself included) towards doing a disservice to their subject and their student’s progression.

Let’s look at the scale I mentioned earlier. When we create a relationship with our class we have to place ourselves somewhere on the scale between what our students might refer to as total nice guy and total jerk.

You are what you teach

We all know at least one teacher that we’ve encountered that is regarded by the majority of his or her students as a totally nice person. It might even be you. And in my experience, this is one of the healthiest relationships a teacher is able to develop between himself or herself and his or her students.

However, there is a wobbly line of appropriateness between what constitutes acceptable behavior with your students, and what constitutes inappropriate behavior with your students. In my PGCE studies it was drilled into us to stay as far away from that line as possible because even the most innocent of toes across that line can be career ending. The media have done a fantastic job at reporting some stellar incidents in which this line has been unwittingly crossed by a teacher that wanted to do right by his or her students and ended up hung up to dry by vindictive students, parents and/or schools.

As a result we are seeing teachers clambering towards the other side of the scale and taking safe refuge in the category of “total jerk”. This might not be the person we want to be, but it’s a professional entity that keeps our students on track. It keeps them quiet when we’re talking, it cuts down students second guessing you and it damn sure sees that activity  is completed in the allotted 20 minutes you have in your lesson plan.

But we’re forgetting one thing. One simple, crucial point that becomes obvious if we just consider our students for a moment. Most of our students don’t come to our lessons because they have an innate interest in what it is that we’re teaching. In fact, at the beginning of secondary schools the majority of our students won’t be able to produce a succinct and accurate description of our subject. No, our subject is an alien entity to our students and it has but one representative. You.

You are most likely the student’s first contact with what an expert at your subject is. And now I ask you this: if everyone who enjoyed and excelled at your subject was like you, then how would you generalize people who like your subject? Angry? Impatient? Total jerks? …actually human!? To put this blog’s message into a single bitesize sentence:

We must never underestimate the level at which we represent what our subject is and what those that are good at our subject are like.

So the next time you step into your classroom and walk among your students, remember that, whether you like it or not, you’re being a role model.