Changing lives for the better

He was unprepossessing: short, slightly overweight and middle-aged. And while not particularly attractive, there was nothing particularly unattractive about him.

He was neither flamboyant nor charismatic; he usually spoke in an even manner, without much variance.

He had a great sense of humour that spilled out of him, catching us up in his mirth. He could be very dry.

But in many ways, he defied expectations—especially when it came to teaching.

You see, against the odds (not young, not sexy, not entertaining), Danny G.— was an exceptionally successful teacher. He was someone who took very ordinary people with very average ability, and performed miracles—not quite water into wine, but near enough.

He was already a phenomenon when I met him. To be in his class, by anyone’s reckoning, was to have an altered future. I didn’t much like school, or at least the aspects of it that had anything to do with classrooms or academic learning. I’d enjoyed Latin as a child, because it was filled with myths and exciting stories. French, forget it! What I really loved was sport. Football, golf, tennis—you name it. If I could run, kick or hit something, life was beautiful.

Danny G.— didn’t undermine my love of sport; he showed me a bigger picture of what it meant to be human, making me realize that study and sport were not mutually opposed. He taught me to love more than one thing. To appreciate learning new things in sciences and humanities, but not at the cost of sport. And as a result, it was, as the boys said—an altered future. A good one.

It is difficult to imagine, but Danny G.— took literature from the 14th century and made it for thirteen year olds as fresh and interesting as if it had been written that day. The Pardoner, from the Canterbury Tales, rose up before us in all his disgusting, vain, hilarious glory. His yellow hair ‘as wax, hanging down like a hank of flax.’ And Sir Toby Belch, from William Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, sat among us sharing jokes.

By some incredible stroke of fortune Danny G.— taught me for the last four years of high school. No one else I knew of had been so lucky. From being an average student I became a very good student academically, and the flow on from competence in English fed into other subjects. Comprehension skills, summary writing, and the capacity not to be put off by a pile of reading, proved invaluable.

What made Danny G.— so effective as a teacher? Partly, it was the fact that he was a very good man. But that brought him respect, and did not necessarily mean successful teaching.

Secondly, he undoubtedly had mastery of his content. He knew his stuff. The minutest detail, ambiguity or irony, did not escape him. He was a Cambridge scholar, and F. R. Leavis and other legends had shaped him. In class, he would uncover, where nine times out of ten we had missed it, great subtlety and beauty of thought and expression in the passages we were studying. His passions became our passions.

He was also absolutely clear on his objectives. His attention to detail reflected his preparation and intention. He knew where he was going and what he needed to communicate. We knew, too.

But other teachers did all this. And they were unsuccessful: their students didn’t do so well, either formally or informally, in their careers.

What was it about Danny? I think it was his extraordinary ability to see things through his students’ eyes. Somehow he had the knack of not only communicating the great joy of a piece of work (like a secret joke), but also of seeing it from where we ‘stood’. His thorough knowledge of us seemed to extend to a sixth sense about how we understood what we were learning. He could see the pitfalls we could see; he was aware of the fearful, dark, shapeless areas of our incomprehension. He anticipated the ‘I can’t do this’, and the panicked ‘I don’t understand’ before they gripped and paralysed.

Danny G.— also knew our strengths and where to build on them. When he saw we had grasped something, he would encourage us to build on it. His conversation and marking of our work was personal, in depth and particular to us. Once again, it illustrated attentiveness and nuance. It was not simply that he made a one-off assessment of where we were. He continually reappraised our learning, nudging us into new spaces.

Two other aspects of Danny G.—’s classroom practice stood out. Firstly, his brilliant ability to ask questions. Questions of the text at hand, the subject under discussion, and the coherence of an argument being made. Questions that kept all of us on our toes, and that targeted our very point of weakness and incomprehension.

Secondly (and somehow, remarkably for his day), he created an environment where it was ok to fail. In fact, failure was seen as a prerequisite to true learning and understanding. His questions highlighted our ignorance, but never in a humiliating manner. He was digging to get us to think. Getting things wrong was just part of Danny’s classroom experience. He didn’t like lazy thinking; he aimed to shake us out of it. His questions, his patience and his persistence were to our gain.

Failure was frowned on in other teachers’ classes and it paralysed creativity, experimentation and learning progress. With Danny G.— it became an implement for success. Behind his quiet, pressing questions lay the assumption that a peaceful class environment meant next to nothing in evaluating effective learning and possession of knowledge. Calm cooperation, impressive to the outside observer, could merely mask teaching inability and student ignorance. The same was true of ‘group activities’ or kids ‘on task’. Both could look great, but each could mean nothing educationally. Danny’s questions would find them out.

One last striking attribute of Mr G.—‘s teaching was the facility he created in us for believing we were competent enough to become our own teachers. Outside the classroom, especially in our final years of high school, we found we had caught his style. The way we argued, probed each other’s assumptions and tested the substance of our information, meant we learnt fast through one and other. In a sense, Danny G.— had replaced himself. This would have made him happy.

Yet after our final high school examinations and a great lunch with a handful of ‘Special Level’ scholars (where ironically we discovered Mr G.— had won a ‘blue’ in rugby at Cambridge—the highest sporting accolade), a sense of sadness settled on me.

Danny G.— would have a new set of students in the Autumn, but Adrian, Paul, Benji and I would never again experience the wonder of his company, his goodness or the brilliance of his teaching. Perhaps we became part of his legacy, but I wish my own children could have experienced his depiction of January in the ‘Merchant’s Tale’ or his analysis of Alexander Pope’s satire or his unfurling of a Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet. Such was his inspirational mastery. As I read in the evenings, my mind is not far from his wit, humour and talent. A talent that leads me repeatedly to ask questions. To ask whether technology can deliver the type of teaching I enjoyed, by helping average teachers become better ones, and replacing those who kill education and who lack the energy and desire to change.

Take away points: Effective education is a vital element for success—to social mobility, health and prosperity. Really good teachers make the difference between academic growth and impediment. Great teaching is characterised (not in any particular order) by: 1) expertise in subject matter; 2) goodness (here defined as integrity, compassion, kindness, attentiveness and affection); 3) clarity about learning objectives; 4) the ability to feel the terror and paralysis of student ignorance (standing in their place), and to know how to disarm that terror and to lead them out (ex duce. Latin) to a place of competence and comprehension; 5) the facility to build on students’ strengths; 6) a refusal to think calm, cooperative classrooms with kids on task, or happily active in group assignments, necessarily means learning is really taking place; 7) the use of failure as a tool for learning; 8) the presence of questions. Most readers have had a least one good teacher, and on a moment’s reflection will acknowledge how important that person was to their lives. Perhaps technology can support such teachers, and less competent ones. And replace those who should never have gone into teaching.

Research: Know thy impact.
Richard Burton reads Gerard Manley Hopkins.
A presentation based on a celebrated meta-analysis by F. Fendick on teacher clarity. A little tricky, but worth the effort.


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