Right now, if you’re a teacher, you probably have a set of lesson plans or schemes of work or curriculum targets or ideas with which are already working to some degree, with no changes, tweaks, modifications or adaptations of any kind. Perhaps you have a creeping feeling that you aren’t doing enough, and perhaps you already know deep down that something has to change if you are to feel content as an educator, but let’s begin by taking the plans that you already have, no matter what shape they are in.
How can you inject more understanding into this existing picture?
What has already been at work in your lessons? The thing that has been keeping your lessons afloat in terms of meaning, motivation and classroom relations has been some kind of attractive power, whether you recognised it as such or not. Student attention is driven by something, however unsatisfactory, and the people sitting in your classes have been attracted and driven by something, even if it hasn’t been as strong as you would wish.
This particular advice isn’t about creating ‘perfect’ or deeply significant lessons, but rather is concerned with improving, however slightly, what you already do.
How do you work out what that already-existing attractive power is?
Firstly, take a lesson and break it down as follows:
Look for the most obvious attractive element. Ask the question, ‘What has been at the heart of this lesson?’
What has given either you or something in that lesson the most attractive power in the whole time you were delivering that lesson? Even if that power is still weaker than you would like, this is the item which you should immediately develop in any way you can. If it is already attracting some attention, it is capable of attracting more strongly. So your first action should be to boost the already-existing attractive elements in your lessons.
For example, in a lesson about poetry it may be that your reading aloud of the poem played a part in initially attracting student attention. This may have degenerated by the end of the lesson - but there may still be something, however slight, that could be done to enhance that performance. Just putting attention on that aspect in order to enhance the lesson should have a positive effect on the lesson overall.
In the case of a lesson on Shakespeare, perhaps you used to have a routine approach to the text which served to let the student know in some way that you knew how challenging the text was for them. Maybe you stopped and explained things regularly, and then, for some reason or other, you stopped doing that, or stopped doing it as frequently and the class’s attention dwindled away, reducing the lesson in power. Restoring a simple pattern of teaching might serve to inject life into the lesson in a way that you would have never suspected.
A lesson may have declined in quality since you visibly disagreed about something with another student. But by placing attention on all the things about which you agree - keeping your attention on supporting the student’s understanding - you can build the lesson back perhaps almost to its original level.
It’s quite possible, though, in each of these cases, that the most attractive thing in your lesson isn’t what you thought it was at all.
How can you tell what the most attractive thing is?
Look for the point in a lesson which attracts most of the students’ attention.
Are your students nagging you to do something every day? Use that to try to establish what it is that they have attention on. Try then to improve on that particular point, and watch the lesson improve.
Is a student continually expressing an anxiety about an aspect of the lesson? Try to find out what the student’s worst fear is, and address that. Take measures to properly allay the underlying fear. The lesson will improve.
Does a student keep on criticising you, perhaps covertly and with gritted teeth, for something that you do? Trace this to an underlying concern, if you can. Deal with that underlying concern and see the lesson recover.
Where a lesson plan isn’t working, there will usually be a hidden factor that exists which the class isn’t voicing. Instead, the group - who after all have some affinity for you - tries to avoid directly hurting you with concerns, but instead disengages. This manifests as classroom distractions which may be completely misdirecting your attention and simply aggravating you.
Students tend to indicate unhappiness with their education by creating irritations, annoyances, aggravations - rather than dealing with what is really bothering them.
These behaviours are clues to the misunderstandings which underlying them.
You can address the balance of the lesson by coming to grips with the underlying misunderstandings. Lessons will improve as soon as you address them. Teachers who do this sometimes give their careers a whole new lease of life: they’ve been trying to run the class from the wrong viewpoint!
Shift the focus and the group explodes into life.
You need to be the judge of which things which will work in the context of your lessons - but don’t be afraid to explore the students’ needs, losses, cravings for understanding, and desire to learn.