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The Role of the Teacher in Facilitating Learning

To fully understand, appreciate and reflect on this title, I will have to study three, very different, yet at the same time inherently linked facets of the education spectrum. Firstly, the role of the teacher will have to be explored and the functions and responsibilities this position entails. Are teachers just lecturing child-minders, or are they fundamental, not only to a child’s learning in school, but to their social and moral development and education? Secondly, what children learn, how children learn, and how we, as educators, learn with them, are crucial aspects which cannot be ignored. And thirdly, I will refer to the aforementioned areas of teaching within the context of key stage 3 and 4 English.

The precise role of the teacher varies, but educator and role-model are two essential parts. Teachers have a responsibility and a moral duty (and are legally contracted), to assist the development of a pupil’s learning throughout their school life, whether they are in a lesson or during any other scholastic situation.

Teachers and pupils have to co-exist, live and work within the confines of a school, and the reasons why many children just cannot cope with this set-up are many. To minimize these potential problems, the teacher therefore has to cater for every pupil’s different needs, (race, gender, SEN etc). A teacher can do this by researching particular pupils – asking previous teachers, seeing SAT scores and literacy and numeracy levels. Consulting the Senco can be beneficial if there are concerns over teaching somebody with special educational needs. Understanding and accepting pupil’s differences, whether they are educational, religious or cultural have to be, not tackled, but worked through with all parties present. A working relationship has to develop where the teacher can initiate and then assist learning and the pupil can respond in their own way. Knowing the pupils individually is of vital importance in knocking down walls and building bridges. The pupils knowing the teacher and the teacher’s consistencies of discipline, standards and expectations, can benefit the two-way relationship. Both parties know each other’s likes, dislikes and boundaries etc. Children are constantly underestimated, they frequently gauge and assess the teacher, acting and reacting in different situations with different teachers, so it’s important to assert yourself and get that relationship right. This is a key target for me; because I worked as a teaching assistant at The Woodroffe, I had to create a formality between myself and a few of the pupils, whereas before it was beneficial to have a more relaxed approach to get the job done.

In English, the teacher has several key tasks which help children to get the most out of the subject: giving the pupils confidence to try when reading and when writing and to give them the relevant skills. Encouraging them to share opinions and interact with their peers through discussion – speaking and listening. Introduce literature and language variation. Help them to understand the author’s craft – reading for meaning. They should be given access to our literary heritage and texts from different cultures and traditions. Recognise where a pupil may benefit from drama and ICT related lessons and then differentiate accordingly. Teachers should consolidate this information with media topics and theories to expand knowledge and understanding. The ability to fuse these areas is a teacher’s aim. The teacher constantly has to push the boundaries, challenge the pupils to get them out of their “comfort-zone”. There is an element of risk involved for the teacher in attempting a balanced but challenging lesson. There is also risk for many pupils in different ways:

Some of us are risk tolerant and some of us are risk averse with all points equally represented. If you are in a learning situation and anxiety tips into stress, then what happens next is predictable. There are four categories of survival response available to you. A teacher or anyone is involved in formally educating others will be familiar with them. They are fight, flight, freeze and flock. You show resistance or fight the source of stress, you flee from it, you freeze in the face of it or you hang out with others like you or flock from it. If you have an accumulation of stressors that leave you feeling out of control, then the four ‘F’s are what is left for you. [1] 

The teacher regularly reviews the boundaries to reduce the usage of these defence mechanisms. These “four ‘F’s” are prevalent in English where in ascertaining whether the students have understood, the teacher will direct questions to random pupils, which in their eyes might be thought of as picking on. Speaking and listening tasks can offer problems to some students who may be good in other areas and some pupils respond by using one of these defence mechanisms because they lack the basic skills needed. What the teacher can do to alleviate this problem is to fore-warn the class that questions will be asked, nominate a table, group or pairs for an answer and say what type of questions you are going to ask, building up from easy questions to harder questions. A quieter student could be asked before the lesson if they felt okay with answering a question/performing a poem etc. A certain degree of sensitivity and common sense is needed when considering this question.

Because English is such a varied subject that encompasses many different teaching and learning styles, it can be difficult to teach and consider the different and necessary approaches. Key stage 3 can be problematic at The Woodroffe as the classes are of mixed ability with a vast range of skills and needs. Key stage 4 are put into sets which, although can help with differentiation, means the need to further challenge pupils becomes more apparent. Pupils know every trick in the book, every survival technique that will help them to stay alive in the jungle that is their classroom. The teacher has to remain one step ahead of them, using their motivational techniques along with a good lesson, to keep the class participating. Knowing each pupil and their needs is of vital importance to the teacher.

The balance of praise and criticism in teaching is an ongoing debate and an issue of common sense. Educational psychologists, writers, theorists, parents and teachers have all added their ideas to the following questions: Is it three ticks to one cross? Do you give out fewer ticks as the pupils get older? Do you mark in green or red pen? These are just some of the basic questions that are trying to be answered. At my school there is an “Assessment For Learning” initiative set up where a group of teachers have volunteered to try many of these schemes. They meet up quarterly to share results. From attending one of these meetings and by witnessing them in class, I am now aiming to use one or two of the ideas in my lessons. For instance, the question of how to mark effectively: Within this context it is very difficult to state what type of marking is needed and where. One possible rule offered is that you don’t highlight every spelling mistake, especially for the lower ability groups. This issue splits teachers. As previously mentioned, I feel that this is an issue of common sense depending on the context of the situation. There is also the question of summative vs. formative marking, but does there have to be “verses”, they can co-exist together. Sometimes a comment is more beneficial to the student than a grade. Some students may prefer to see a mark or grade so that they can easily see improvement. There is ongoing research into this area. Choosing which type of marking to use is a matter for each individual teacher and their individual students. Again, it is your knowledge of the pupils as individuals, building on your expectations for them, what they are achieving and what they should be achieving and getting the pupil to recognise these expectations. Just as two pupils are never the same, the marking, comments and grades reflect this. Teachers have to regulate and differentiate and only by knowing the pupils, (SEN, background, social problems etc) will this occur.

I have realised that some pupils benefit from formative marking and that some crave a grade or number so that they see if they are progressing. It appears to me that higher ability students like to see the grades. I was asked recently by a higher ability year 12 student to give a grade for a piece of homework where I had just put a constructive comment. Putting crosses in red, underlining incorrect spelling and putting “see me!” at the end of the work, are all methods which we are familiar with, but how many teachers actually appreciate and celebrate pupils’ work? At every level pupils like to see their work appreciated by the teacher and the class. They like to know that they understood the question or showed a great deal of effort. They like to be rewarded appropriately and consistently. For some pupils just to finish a piece of work is a cause for celebration. This celebration should be differentiated by the teacher in accordance with individual expectations.

Linked with praise and criticism is target-setting. A current theme in schools is for the student and teacher to work together to set the pupil’s targets for the term/year etc. The theory behind this idea is to involve the pupil as much as possible so they can create manageable targets. Also, they are more likely to resist completely if a teacher were to set their targets and “force-feed” them to the student. In English, setting targets, no matter how small and achieving them is the basis for progression in learning. Targets could include spelling certain words, taking part more in class discussions, not calling out or handwriting. Again, this target setting is heavily differentiated and that is why I feel it is a good idea to involve the student, they know probably better than the teacher where they need to improve. I have worked with students and other teachers setting literacy targets and behavioural targets in other schools and at The Woodroffe. We adjusted the targets by looking at levels and listening to comments from other teachers, not just in English. This idea attempts to motivate students by shifting the responsibility, from the teacher to the pupil, involving them more in their learning. This is just one facet of an interactive movement within education today; self-marking and self-evaluation are important tools in the classroom for all key stages. Just recently I asked a year 10 group to mark their own work as if they were a teacher. The comments and grades that I were shown were very interesting, the amount of constructive reflection was very surprising. This allows the students to see their work from a teacher’s perspective - what they will be marked on and how the teacher allocates marks for spelling and handwriting, for example. The idea is to create reflective pupils. “Pupil responsibility” is the current catchphrase, although some students understand the reasoning behind the idea more than others. In my year 9 lessons, preparing for their SATS, I make very explicit what they will be marked on for each type of question. They are given the mark scheme to mark their own mock papers. This seems to help them a great deal and they are beginning to realise that teachers don’t just give a random grade with “could do better” on the bottom.

A teacher has to consider the use of the different learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Visual learners like to see what they learn, auditory learners like to hear what they learn and kinaesthetic learners like to be physically involved in what they learn. They should be used together and this cross-over is of vital importance in an inclusive learning environment. In English, skills are needed that incorporate different styles of teaching (reading, writing, watching, speaking, listening, performing). When planning, teachers have to accommodate all the methods to make sure they appeal to all the different types of learners in their class. Across both key stages I have aimed to deliver a varied programme within the lesson; when I am explaining something I try to express it clearly and concisely, have what I am saying on the board, sometimes with a picture and by giving out helpful handouts. By demonstrating something as I am explaining it, especially in drama and speaking and listening, helps to address all the different types of learners. Also, I prefer to set work involving a mixture ‘doing’ tasks, reading tasks, written tasks, whilst incorporating drama and ICT.

Flexibility within a lesson structure is a key theme. Recognising where to be flexible is a trait of a good teacher: (Is this too easy for them - shall I move on to something more challenging? Did they get all that – shall I go over it again?) Because of the wide range of topics in English, a well-structured lesson should be planned, although digression in a lesson, especially when instigated by a pupil’s question, can be beneficial to develop.

It is beneficial if a teacher is enthusiastic and is able to enthuse students. This enthusiasm should be considered a valuable resource, just like the teacher’s subject knowledge. The knowledge of, understanding and using resources are essential for enhancing the learning experience. Resources can be varied and obviously differ between subjects, classrooms and teachers. Resources can include such things as:

Teacher knowledge

Student knowledge

Teaching Assistants

I.C.T. – computers, O.H.P.s, digital cameras, video cameras etc

Research

Homework

A brilliant and effective lesson is very hard to achieve. A well-structured lesson is a must as long as there is flexibility allowed, as previously mentioned. Presentation and delivery are also important aspects to consider whilst not forgetting the power of the teacher to inspire:

“Use rich language and lots of repetition. Encourage learning behaviours – noticing, naming, describing, speculating, questioning. Encourage physical exploration and robust play.” (Smith, p.46)

Other things that are found in a good lesson vary from subject to subject, factors that I consider crucial in English are:

1) Good planning and preparation. A well planned and prepared lesson is more likely to be a good one. Each learning objective and task to meet that objective is carefully considered to be beneficial to the students. This is an ongoing target, which I feel I have met to a basic level.

2) Knowing the pupils well. By knowing the pupils well you can cater for all their weaknesses and abilities, set achievable targets, expectations and boundaries. Again, I know the majority of my students and some of their weaknesses and strengths but I realise more background research on the pupils is needed.

3) Differentiation/learning styles. This is to benefit each student with their own needs and learning styles - tailoring the lesson so that it is accessible to thirty or more students. This is a key aim of mine and although I feel I understand what is needed, I need to spend a great deal of time on this area.

4) Check understanding continually (also from assessment). I check at regular intervals by asking questions, checking books and work in lesson. This is important because it is vital to realise if you are going too fast or too slow. Students that don’t understand will switch off. Also, knowing when you are going too fast is crucial and leads on to:

5) Consolidation – building on prior knowledge/looking to future lessons. This can be added to the start of a lesson to refresh memories and to let the students know the content of the lesson. I feel I do consolidate consistently but it is an ongoing, rolling target of mine.

6) Appropriate working relationship with students. As previously mentioned, to benefit the student and the teacher, getting the correct balance has to be achieved. This is an area where I realised I needed to focus myself. I think I am gradually achieving that balance.

A critical aspect of the facilitation of learning is the actual environment where the learning takes place, usually the classroom. Children are learning all the time, whether they know about it or not:

There is a great deal of learning that goes on outside of conscious attention. The brain processes information that is ‘neither attended to nor noticed’ and this process is pervasive and ongoing. Children can, in some situations, be learning without the involvement of the teacher! (Smith, p.161)

There are other ways to make the classroom an enriched learning place and accessible to all. Behaviour is a major factor, if you have bad behaviour constantly and from different students, you may well question your choice of lesson for them. A lesson that is too easy for students is just as bad as a lesson that is too hard for them.

“Better behaviour means better learning. Classrooms become better places in which to study and more enjoyable to work in.” [2] 

It is also beneficial to students and teachers alike, to be consistent when setting and enforcing rules and boundaries. By talking to staff and from my own experiences, I have realised this is an important aspect. Clarification, explanation and the displaying of rules and guidelines are essential as “pupils learn best in ordered environments where boundaries are clear.”(DfES 2003)

It is easy to overlook the actual classroom space. This is an integral part to the students’ lessons. Is it light and airy? Is it overcrowded or badly set out? Are the wall displays overbearing, too “busy”? Or, are the displays subtly aiding learning by just being visible? Students are proud to see their own work on the walls and this sense of well-being can only help create a positive atmosphere. It is good for the students to know where everything is in a classroom. Are the dictionaries and other resources easily accessible? Are the tables and chairs set out in rows or in groups? Which way would suit the task you are about to set? I have always thought that this is an area that could easily be overlooked by teachers and although I aim to consider this factor, I find it difficult when I use twelve different rooms, some of them art and science rooms which are not conducive for teaching English.

Differentiation is a major consideration in the classroom. Recognising, understanding and catering for every child’s individual needs are essential; knowing the pupils, planning for them appropriately and setting achievable learning outcomes. Getting the balance between challenging content and achievement can be difficult, even for experienced teachers. That is why it is so important to know your pupils well, as previously discussed. What special educational needs do they have? What can you do to help them progress in their learning? In English, recognising reading and writing problems, are they dyslexic? Also, speaking and listening problems, autism and understanding these problems is necessary. How can you make your lessons more accessible for them? You can try to understand their problems and talk to the Senco about how to facilitate learning better. Have they any background or social problems? Teachers have to differentiate for the gifted and talented in their classes, with extension tasks combined with rewards, whilst not forgetting all the pupils in between.

It is also a key aim for teachers to be reflective, recognising the good aspects of their teaching and developing them in order to facilitate progression in pupils’ learning. It is also necessary for them to realise where their teaching techniques and methods can be improved to achieve their full potential as an educator, which in turn, will improve the student. Although I have only limited experience, one example is fresh in my mind: Whilst beginning to take a year 11 GCSE prep. group, I realised that because of their lack of motivation, they weren’t really benefiting from my lessons. I discussed the issue with my mentor and approached from a different angle, changing my lesson plans, tasks and delivery to get their attention and to offer the skills they needed to learn.

I think that the role of the teacher is an indefinable idea. As times change, so do the responsibilities and duties for a teacher. One thing remains constant however, the main drive of teacher as educator. Although teachers wear many different hats, their actual teaching hat is never taken off, that is the one thing that takes precedence. As previously mentioned, teachers have to be flexible nowadays, and it is this pliability that has helped to make teaching such a demanding but rewarding career. Teaching has evolved and the roles are many and varied across the entire spectrum.

There is a shift in telling the children what they need to know, to telling the children how to find out what they need to know, giving them the responsibility for their learning and development. In English, there is a drive towards prioritising what the child needs to progress on, students are marked and evaluated as individuals not as a whole class. Getting the balance between consolidation and moving the class on is a constant consideration and through teaching, teachers are learning how to adapt and improve so they can benefit the students to their full potential.

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