Welcome to teaching, the most rewarding, challenging and exhilarating job that you will ever be involved in. You have just stepped into a world where each and every day will be different. Where you will realise, no matter how experienced you get, that no single child is the same and no matter how much you feel you have got ‘it’, there will always be more to learn.
In my NQT year, my Graduate Teacher Programme mentor told me, ‘Amjad, some teachers have that magic “dust”, that thing that every teacher needs. They just get the kids and the kids get them.’ At the time, I took these words proudly. However, I am 100% certain that those words were, to put it bluntly, simply wrong. There is no such thing as magic ‘dust.’ What all teachers really need to know is how to engage and inspire their learners.
Engagement is a word you will hear a lot of. In fact, I could easily argue that this word is used more than the term ‘learning’ itself! This makes it a challenging concept to define (Barkaoui et al., 2015), which is why, I fear, it is often confused with entertainment. Colleagues who oppose the principle of engaging lessons tend to do so because they feel that learning time is being wasted with pointless activities. But to me, engagement is not necessarily about being super-creative and innovative with your lesson ideas, resources or activities (though there’s no reason why you can’t also do this!).
Just because students seem engaged, interested and motivated, it does not mean that they are actually learning. As Rob Coe (Coe, 2013) has pointed out, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’. For me, an engaging lesson is one in which students are active participants in their learning. They are engrossed, challenged and immersed in their lesson.
In order to design engaging lessons, you first need to think of how to engage the learning process. Do not start by planning your activities for your lessons; start by thinking about the learning you want your students to achieve. Quality-first planning precedes quality-first teaching. What are you going to be teaching your students? Can you make it come alive? Your enthusiasm and passion for the subject is a vital prerequisite, but it is not the only item necessary.
When you have planned for your students’ learning and you are then designing your activities, resources or tasks, always aim for low-effort and high-impact. Sir Tim Brighouse shared these words with me during a mentoring session when I first became an assistant head teacher. He told me that it is simply not sustainable to be planning, delivering and participating in high-effort, high-impact items all the time. He taught me that effective, engaging lessons are a vital cog in an effective school.
So, how can you transform your lessons? Twitter is a fantastic tool for this – you will find resources, ideas and suggestions from teachers worldwide, sharing their viewpoints on effective learning, and you can search for your subject via hashtags. I’ve put together a list of hash tags related to subjects that might be useful, and my website, a free teaching and learning toolkit, is full of ideas from educators, for educators, designed to make your lessons more engaging: TryThisTeaching.com/Toolkit.
Do not ever pick up a ready-made activity without thinking about your context, your students’ needs and what you are attempting to teach. This is where activities become lesson time-fillers, rather than tasks to develop learning. Ultimately, engaging lessons need to have solid foundations. These are effective routines, structured instructions and a love for young people and their interests. Just be wary of trying to be ‘on their level’ – as what we think is funny, cool and trendy is often NOT what they think is funny, cool or trendy!
My top advice for you as new teachers is to remember that teaching is a journey, not a destination. You may feel like you are a million miles away from where you need to be, but travelling on that road is what you need to do. Students love a teacher who is willing to be themselves, a teacher who models effective learning and, most importantly, a teacher who is calm and consistent.
To be an engaging and inspiring teacher you need to be intelligent, reflective and confident:
Overall, to be engaging, you need to be living the lesson with your students. When you look up for the first time and you only have a minute to go, you know your students were engaged!
Amjad discusses these ideas further in a TEDx talk: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC6LNBWpMCE.
Amjad Ali is a part-time assistant head teacher for inclusion and teaching and learning. He also delivers CPD and training across the country. @ASTSupportAali