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Thursday, June 28, 2012

The secrets of being a great teacher: how to allow creativity without losing control

Once upon a time, not so many years ago really, when we thought of education we envisaged an authoritarian figure- perhaps in a robe and oddly-shaped hat- holding a stick of chalk and standing in front of a large group of seated (and preferably silent) children. The children would listen, then regurgitate the required information when called upon.
A caricature from Vanity Fair

There are some in our society who would like that model of education to remain fixed in stone. Some of them are teachers, some are parents, some are politicians and administrators.

If you're at the coalface, you know that education doesn't look like that any more, and nor should it if we want the human race to achieve to its potential. Gradually the realisation is filtering through that mass conformity doesn't produce brilliance, that the best education is not a twelve- or sixteen-year conveyor belt operated by authoritarian adults who force-feed the children from text books as they pass.

It's taken a long time to get to this point. History is littered with schoolroom failures like Thomas Edison and Isaac Singer, who achieved greatness only once they got out from under the thumb. (Go on, YOU try imagining life without the light bulb or the sewing machine.) And as technology explodes into new realms, creativity and individuality should be valued in the classroom as never before.

Teaching styles have to change to accommodate this realisation of truth.

I'm in an unusual position amongst my colleagues. I've had the experience of teaching all age groups- from birth to the end of high school. I've also coached adults. And so I can say to you, it doesn't matter how old the student is- nor does it matter that educational models are finally on the move. The essential truths of great teaching remain the same. There is a way to maintain control in a classroom without sacrificing individuality and creativity.

As a music teacher, I had to find these things out. My students had to be creative to do well in their course- and in setting them free, I stumbled upon these maxims which have served me well for over 30 years.

Here they are.

  1. You are not a talking textbook.
    You are not there to read aloud from a textbook or to declaim facts from the front of the room to a silent, homogenous mass of note-taking robots. Children are not empty vessels to be filled, and success in life for them will not be about regurgitating what you say. If you want to be more useful than Google, you need to bring your subject alive- be engaged with it, shine with the excitement of passing on something that is precious and important to you.

    You have to make that love of learning contagious. If you don't have that spark, please don't become a teacher.

  2. "We don't need no education..."
    -the wall is there!
    Part of that spark is honesty. Tell your students the truth. If you recognise that something you have to teach is boring, for example, say so, and explain to them why this knowledge is important and where it's leading (hopefully, to somewhere more interesting). If they ask a subjective question- personal matters aside- answer honestly instead of taking the party line.

    A wall between you and your students- particularly adolescent students- will come tumbling down if they trust that you'll be honest with them.

  3. A long time ago,
    but I still remember
    why I was laughing! 
    Another part of that spark is humour. You have to teach something dull? Make a joke of it. You make a mistake? Laugh at yourself. It will enhance every child's learning if there is laughter in the lesson. Laughter aids memory.

    The only time you need to control the twitch at the corner of your mouth is when the joke is at the expense of a student. It is NEVER funny or useful to ridicule a student. It is especially heinous to laugh at a child's creative work.

  4. You are not a god. You are not better than your students. Your job is to make knowledge accessible to your students, and that means viewing the world from where they are- not from the top of some pedestal of your own devising.

    The ability to walk a mile in their shoes will give you the best teaching aide of all- a genuine relationship with your students as individuals. To help your students to climb the ladder of knowledge, it's a lot easier to stand at the bottom and show them each rung than it is to perch at the top shouting instructions.

  5. There is a limit to your power. You can probably force most children to sit still, for example, if you're cruel and threatening enough- but you can't force them to learn while they're sitting there. Be careful about how you achieve control. A quiet classroom is not necessarily an indication of quality learning taking place.

    The best way to control children's behaviour is to motivate them, amuse them and intrigue them.

  6. Don't be seduced by marks alone as a measure of learning; remember that failure indicates a willingness to try when one is uncertain of the outcome. Value failure, and teach your students to value failure.

    Edison looked back on the thousand failed experiments on the way to creating the light bulb and saw it as a journey of a thousand steps, each providing a little more knowledge. If you can teach your students to value failure as much as they value success, that is indeed a 'lightbulb moment'. 

    Fear of failure can hold back even the most capable student from fulfilling their potential. The student who is too afraid to say they “don't understand” has just reached a road block to their learning, and if they don't speak up you will have the devil's own job finding that block later on.

  7. Even just visiting the school, I was
    careful to dress like I cared- but with
     my own style.
    Model what you want to see from your students. Be experimental sometimes. Try different ways of doing things. Stay in touch, by using technology or professional development to update your knowledge without being asked. Let yourself fail sometimes, and admit to it. See the funny side of things that don't work. Apologise for your mistakes. Behave, in short, like a with-it human being who is a product of this century.

    But if you want professionalism, model that too. Dress like you give a damn, be well-prepared for your lessons, treat others with respect, be fair, and be yourself rather than trying to be what you think the kids want. If you behave like you're one of the kids they won't be fooled in the least, and nor will they have anything to aspire to.

  8. Last but not least- bring your compassion to the classroom. Thousands of terrible things happen to people every day, and some of those people will be the children in your classroom. No child can learn while their pain is unacknowledged.

    Compassion. It's there, in your brain.
    Use it.
    Some days you have to stop the lesson, forget your plans and schedules and just talk about stuff that has nothing to do with your subject. Some days, the very best thing you'll do all day as a teacher is to ask a child if they're okay. 

    If you can make your classroom a supportive community, you are creating an environment where the children can let go of pain and let their ideas flow- and that is what creativity is all about.


  1. Hello Aunt Annie,

    I just wanted to ask you if you could refer any good books for me to read so I can manage dealing with my little girl much more efficiently. I am currently reading "Gifted Young Children 2nd edition - a guide for teachers and parents" by Louise Porter. I have just finsihed 50 pages and so far it looks good, but it sound very technical too and lack examples so comprehending it can be bit challenging. Thanks for this great blog

    1. Hi again, Akshaya! Hoagie's is the place for you- they have an online bookshop as well as articles. Head this way: and you'll find plenty of reading matter.

      If you have specific problems you can always go over to my Facebook page and send me a PM.


  2. Some great words here, Annie. I think having a sense of humor (but, as you said, not at the student's expense) and not taking yourself too seriously are keys to a great classroom. Yes, you may be doing some serious learning but that doesn't mean you have to be sooo serious all the time.

    1. Exactly, Scott! Learning doesn't have to be grim and determined all the time. We can take a leaf out of the book of small children- they learn through PLAY. The more playful we are in our learning, the better it sticks.

  3. I love this way of teaching. It not only applies to school age children, but to all ages. I work with children from birth to 3yrs and have found that learning with them is alot more rewarding than teaching them. Their own ideas & curiosity at such a young age is something that would be easy to answer with a regurgitated response, but I would much rather question it with them & explore solutions..accepting that it might nit always be the right solution. Most of all, I incorporate humour into learning. Sharing a laugh with a baby that is hiding from you by covering her eyes, and then magically reappearing, is priceless. Baby is so excited & enthusiastic when you respond and this encourages her to think of other tricky ways to make you laugh..a wonderful way to learn! Thanks for this piece Annie..another valuable resource for my reflective thinking folder!!

    1. Lisa, that's so true- I use much of this 'method' when teaching 0-5-yr-olds. The humour and honesty is particularly useful as a child's grasp of language increases. I'm so glad that you're finding the blog useful for your work.

  4. Love this AA & think every new teacher should be given something like this instead of being told 'The pupils are not your friends' 'Don't smile until Christmas' - these are pieces of advice we are given when starting out! And you're right Zuckerberg must have hidden this, first time seeing it today!

    1. Totally agree, Kierna! If they said 'the pupils are not your peers' they would be right. There's nothing worse than the teacher who tries to be one of the kids. But you CAN and should try to develop sincere friendships.

      As for 'don't smile till Christmas'- there was no way I would ever succeed at that! Kids are just too delightful to maintain a po face.

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