“There is more to life than increasing its speed”
Introduction to ‘Slow Teaching’ which will be published by John Catt Educational in 2018.
The Slow Teaching Philosophy
You have taken the first step: hesitantly opening the pages of this book. There may be elements of doubt as you remember the repertoire of more fashionable effective teaching behaviours, a speed induced cocktail with the ingredients of pace, energy and engagement.
You pause, questioning the connotations of the adjective ‘slow’ in the all- consuming, rapid paced world of education.
A first memory arises of that exhausted feeling on a Friday evening after a week on the relentless conveyer belt of life in school. A second recalls those huge piles of workbooks, each strewn with red pen as your aching hand scribbles yet another repetitive comment. A third is more emotional: how regularly you feel utterly overwhelmed by the endless demands on your time.
You then remember the hordes of eager, inspired faces that joined you on that nerve-wracking, exciting first day of teacher training. Those motivated and passionate individuals, a significant number that now no longer teach. A flicker of recognition (dare I say hope) briefly overcomes you as you reflect again on the title: ‘Slow Teaching.’
My work begins.
This book has an agenda. I will be very clear from the start: it will seek to highlight the value of slowing down in almost everything we do in education. It will challenge popular whirlwind teaching priorities: ‘outstanding’ single teaching episodes; obsessional data collection; endless marking; single lesson performance management; sporadic behaviour management systems and the priority on engagement over learning.
Instead, ‘Slow Teaching’ will highlight the value of the considered, reflective and mindful teacher, whose ability to slow down both inside and outside of the classroom energises them, and results in improved progress for the young people in their care. It will explore teaching for real impact, that focuses on retaining knowledge and that will enable a life-long love of learning. We will see how this requires patient development over time, with real attention to detail.
It will recognise that learning is messy and anything but linear, arguing that measured teaching for retention and memory is a skill that is still not given enough priority in our schools. Feedback strategies that move young people forward in their learning and maximise the use of our precious teacher time will be explored, alongside assessment that is carefully considered and will empower teachers with the tools to plan for the success of all their students. The streamlined focus will be on what will have the real influence in moving learning forward, not on fulfilling an Ofsted agenda or a data imperative.
We will pause to reflect on the experience of education for young people: whose lives are overwhelmed by the relentless world of social media and technology addictions. ‘Slow Teaching’ will argue that our classrooms should be sanctuaries of routine, patience and calm that teach vital ‘slow’ skills: listening, concentration and most importantly the capacity to reflect and think about learning. It will explore how this will allow us to build better relationships and appreciate the daily joys and nuances of teaching.
Continuing to improve this craft will also be a priority in the pages of this book: prioritising the deliberate, reflective and research informed practice that will allow us to methodically continue to grow to become experts. In short: to slowly rediscover our passion for the wonderful world of teaching. We will also examine school management, reflecting on how the slow leadership style, with its focus on attention to detail, can provide the framework to empower young people with the very best opportunities in life.
This book also arrives at a junction in education in which the use of “crisis” is becoming more ubiquitous. Hardly a day goes by without a screaming headline: “crisis” in teacher retention, “crisis” in teachers sprinting to leave the profession, “crisis” in confidence in school leadership and “crisis” in attracting teachers to teach in more challenging environments. Political interference has arguably resulted in more reactive policies that fail to provide long-term solutions. There is a clear void, a lack of proactive and considered reflection in education to move the profession forward – inch by inch, painstakingly slow step by step.
We will consider what the reality of wellbeing really means in a school environment, evaluating how best we can develop an understanding and better relationship with stress. Sharing practical and sustainable strategies to equip teachers with the ability to enjoy a long, positive and healthy career in teaching will be one of the residing aims of ‘Slow Teaching’.
This book is also the product of a personal odyssey of embracing a slower and more reflective professional life. My own start to a teaching career was particularly frenzied: with early promotion to an Assistant Headteacher in a large comprehensive in central London. For years I literally ran three miles into school, dashed around manically for long hours on autopilot, then ran home laden with stacks of books to keep me company into the late evening.
I was utterly invincible: thriving on little sleep and the adrenaline of pace. Signs of exhaustion and the build-up of all-encompassing stress were arrogantly rejected. I would cope by moving with more and more urgency: a self-defeating and addictive prophecy of speed. Mistakes in my professional and private life gradually built up and I became more fractured and more irritable. Any ability to think strategically or consider how best to use my time, were lost in the wild fire of cortisone and adrenaline that comes with a life fuelled by stress.
I ignored the clear signals, driving myself further and further into the ground. It culminated in illness, professional burn out and an almost complete refutation of the teaching profession. I was close to joining the legions of teachers whose early experience in education left them demoralised and defeated by a relentless profession.
The transition to a more tranquil individual has been one of tears, sweat and anxiety. The explosion of mindfulness literature and the growing cultural shift towards slowing down has been a guiding light in the darkness. Stumbling across texts like ‘In Praise of Slow’ by Carl Honore and ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ by Haemin Sunim helped in developing a new philosophy that appreciates the calm, the contemplative and the merits of slowing down. This journey has included reflection on how the individuals who professed to slow tendencies: including Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi and the Stoic philosophers achieved such success in a deliberate rejection of speed. As the chapters to come demonstrate: it also led to investing much more time in reflecting on, and learning from, the writings of others on education.
There is no idealism or romanticism in ‘Slow Teaching’: teaching will always be a demanding profession and young people are challenging customers, who inevitably are the complete contrast of slow. The criteria that opened this introduction will continue to be essential in securing their progress. Yet pace can also be overrated: it needs to be coupled with essential slow skills, forgotten aspects of teaching and learning that could ultimately prove transformative in securing positive futures for young people.
It is time to control the mad theology of speed that is damaging the teaching profession, to seek to press pause and reflect on an educational system that is being stretched to its limits. It is time to streamline teaching to focus on what can make a difference for young people, something that can only be achieved if we deliberately slow down to focus on what matters. Let the journey slowly begin…