There is a world of difference between ‘telling’ and ‘teaching’.

Today a group of delightful students (all our students are delightful) asked if they could interview me on camera. One of the questions they asked pertained to my role and it was something akin to ‘What is the hardest thing about your job?” I’m unsure what they were expecting, but I believe my response surprised them, because I have never been away from the classroom in the thirty-five years I have been in education (in one capacity or another). I have a cartoon on the wall of my office that I first cut out and placed on a pin-board in another office, in another school, on another continent twenty-six years ago. I believe it’s self-explanatory but it sums up what for me has constituted the single greatest conundrum of my career, namely how does one achieve perfect alignment between what is taught and what students learn? The process of teaching is so often a consistent demonstration of the law of unintended effect. I believe it’s one of the reasons so many teachers hate marking – one tends to come face to face with one’s own inadequacy. One is often left with irrefutable evidence, that what students actually learn is sometimes just a remote approximation of what you believed you were teaching them. So, if learning was not the end product of one’s teaching, then can one even say that any teaching occurred? Such are the joys, and the agonies, of this profession.


There is a world of difference between ‘telling’ and ‘teaching’ and good teachers never stop looking for that critical combination of skills that constitute ‘a magic bullet’. One also learns – very quickly – that ‘gut-feeling’ about how a lesson proceeded is completely deceptive. I recall once telling off one of my classes, after they produced particularly bad results, that I felt they had led me down the proverbial garden path by giving me the distinct impression they understood what I was explaining. They had appeared to be so engaged, so interested, so attentive … When I mentioned this one student said “Sir, you appeared to be having such a good time, that we didn’t have the heart to tell you we didn’t know what was going on.” Passion, enthusiasm and effort, in any line of work, is to be welcomed, but sadly unless it’s complemented with significant skill, outstanding achievement will forever remain elusive. I say this because I know so many students this term have given it their all and still feel that they have not been rewarded with top marks. Acceptance of the fact that effort does not always pay a dividend is the first step towards adulthood.