Talking to myself

Teaching is a job where what we say matters. Our explanations, our questioning, our modelling, our interactions- they all rely on our talk being focussed and effective. We need clear explanations that bring students who know little about something closer to the level of experts and we need to often say just the right thing in just the right way to ensure that students respond in the way we need. We plan powerpoints, create beautiful resources, mark exhaustively, but nobody has ever asked me to practise what I’m going to say.

Over the last couple of years, I have started talking to myself. In the car, in my house, in my classroom. Here’s why.

Clarity of explanation

Above all, I think that we should practise our explanations. For example, this half term my students in year 10 are studying Romeo and Juliet and I recently taught a lesson which was just me and a visualiser. I explained, discussed, questioned and the students and I annotated. Act 3 Scene 1 is a scene most English teachers know well and I am no exception, so I certainly could have winged it. Instead, as part of my preparation, I practised what I was going to do and what I was going to say. I literally sat at my desk at home, annotated the scene and explained it as I would have explained it to students.

This rehearsal allowed me to do a number of things. It meant that I would not be blindsided by phrases such as ‘alla staccato carries it away’ and I could think of my discussion of the tricky layers of meanings of words like ‘consort’ and avoid saying things that I would have to clarify later. It meant that we could focus on Romeo’s response to loss, the essay topic, and avoid too many tangents (I just can’t manage no tangents). Instead of my questions being improvised, I knew exactly where I would ask which questions to which students.

Now, we cannot reasonably be expected to do this for every single part of every single lesson but I know that my students’ understanding of this scene is far stronger than if I had not rehearsed. Most of my practising takes place in the car on the way to work anyway, making the most of that ‘dead time’, so does not add extra hours to my busy day.

Sometimes they call you Sheamus- or is that just me?
Sometimes they call you ‘Sheamus’- or is that just me?

Be prepared

I do love the unpredictable nature of students (mostly), but there are things that they say again and again. Sometimes I see teachers who have the perfect response to certain behaviours and comments and I wish I was as quick. Except, I don’t have to be quick-witted enough to come up with the perfect response in the moment– I can script it and practise it in advance.

So what are the things that students always say?

“Can we have a fun lesson?”

“I wish we still had Miss…”

“This is boring.”

“Other teachers let us…”

“What do we have to do again?”

“I don’t get it.”

I’m sure that list could go on. If we don’t practise responses, we have to rely on conjuring up the perfect comeback or reply instantly. And if we don’t deescalate these things, they can build up and destroy lessons. I have polished how I reply to “Can we have a fun lesson?” to such a fine art that we can always quickly move on.

It isn’t just what they say. It could be dealing effectively with a late student or someone swinging on a chair. Dare I say it, we might even admit that sometimes behaviour across the class is not acceptable and they need a stern reminder. Practising this is not saying that we want it to happen, or that telling off a class is something great, but that if it has to happen we don’t need to be angry and frustrated, making things worse with an improvised speech.

Training sessions

When I deliver a training session to staff, I like to rehearse it at least once as it makes me familiar with the material. My main reason for saying the thing out loud is it often forces me to consider how what I say is received and allows me to explore whether what I am saying is, well, nonsense. We can often write eduspeak and add received wisdom into what we say. Sometimes I catch myself saying something that I don’t actually think or couldn’t justify.  And there is also the unfortunate business of that extra bullet point on a list that you had forgotten about…

Difficult conversations

Sometimes a difficult conversation needs to be had. There’s nothing worse than addressing a legitimate concern but phrasing it wrong or waffling on to another topic. Before you know it, the conversation is no longer about the one thing that it probably needs to be about. Whether this is with a colleague, a student or a parent, a little bit of practice beforehand will ultimately help the conversation to go where it needs to.

When I attended Teach Like a Champion training in October, these principles of practising talk were clarified and focussed for me. Teaching is a profession where saying the right thing is crucial. From our lessons to our meetings, our training sessions to our calls to parents, talking is teaching. So why leave it all to chance?

Further reading:

Michael Slavinsky’s write up of the first TLAC training day explores similar ideas: Uncommon Schools Training – practising to perform

Julie Ryder discusses the same training here: Teach Like a Champion Part 2: Training the Trainers


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