We sat down with Andrew Gallacher, Head of Teacher Education at Edinburgh Napier University, to discuss his best times in the classroom and some of the challenges facing new teachers today.
Can you share one of your most rewarding experiences as a teacher?
I was teaching at a school in North Lanarkshire, where there was a lot of deprivation, and we were looking at ways to improve the wellbeing of the pupils. We did an Activities Week for the kids, and as well as the standard ‘let’s go to Alton Towers’, we decided to have some of the kids go out mountain biking in a local park. The kids were showing myself and my colleagues ways round. It was a laugh! At the end of the week the kids were so happy – it made a big difference to the way they looked at the teachers.
School should be about more than just sitting there, doing your subject. It’s about having that interaction - the positivity of the teacher-pupil relationship. That was a really good week, which made a difference to the kids. It showed them you don’t have to go 300 miles to Alton Towers - you can just go two miles up the road.
Those kind of things make you more of a teacher. Not everyone realises that being part of the community - doing sports clubs and music clubs - is part of it. What’s your speciality, what are you good at? Can you give something back? And when these kids realise that, it makes a difference. A big difference. Do you know what it is? It’s respect. The kids have to respect you for who you are, and they get you when you do things like that.
Kids want teachers to be decent, and totally consistent in their approach. They want to know when you’re going to get angry and whether you mean what you say. If you’re a screamer and a shouter, and that’s all you ever do, then the kids will have no respect for you.
How do you think the sector has changed in your time as a teacher and what do you think the biggest struggle is for new teachers?
For new teachers it’s coping with the really diverse demands of the job. And you can try and do too much, so you have to focus.
Good teaching has always been there, but now we’re analysing it in much greater depth and our understanding of it is much greater. Things like metacognition and neuroscience are really important. Understanding how kids learn and what motivates them is much more important than it used to be. It used to be you had a jolly teacher who cracked a joke or two and the kids loved it. People taught well because of personality, which does help, but understanding situations, making the time in class worthwhile, making homework worthwhile, getting the parents involved is what it’s about.
Some student teachers struggle with the pressure of thinking they have to master it all in one go – you can’t. There’s no way you can. You have good days and bad days.
Do you think good teaching can be taught?
You can’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. Every teacher is an actor. I know some teachers, they sit in a classroom, and they’re brilliant. Get them in the staff room and they don’t talk to anybody. So you get people who can switch.
What we’ll try to do is uncover what is within them as part of the course, by giving them challenges and developing their confidence. They might not be used to public speaking, so we’ll give them chances to practice as much as possible. I know teachers who have been teaching for years, but you ask them to maybe talk to a group of colleagues in the staffroom and they turn to jelly because it’s out of their comfort zone. Once you have developed confidence it is easier to develop the communication skills. Planning becomes more straightforward and you are more inclined to try something new or innovative.
We’ll also look at professional enquiry. Students will plan an intervention, research the policy and practice, and then very importantly self-reflect. This process is crucial to understanding good teaching rather than just repeating past processes.
It is very important that we model good practice in every aspect of the course at Edinburgh Napier so that our students have confidence in what we are saying and doing.
Are there things you wish you’d been taught in your teacher training? And will they form part of this course?
The maths was great. We had a lot of input, really good tutors, really liked their stuff, knew their stuff, and it worked well in a very positive atmosphere. But the professional studies things? It was desperate. And a lot of the good practice we were supposed to replicate, they didn’t demonstrate it themselves. We talked about it, but we didn’t do it. And that’s what we want to try to avoid.
How do you feel about getting to build this programme from scratch?
Excited. It’s actually… hold me down! I don’t know the last time there was a chance to build something from scratch. I’ve got a lot of ideas, and I’ll look around the world at different things that really impress me, for example in Finland in terms of teacher placement. I’m putting things out there at the moment and all I’m getting is “Yeah, okay! That sounds good! We’d be up for it, up for a change, we want to do something good, make a difference, and go for it!” My previous experience was a lot of “No, it works because it works.”