Teaching from the back, leading from the front

Guest blogger: Anna McHugh

Let’s be honest: you’ve got to nurture your authority as the subject expert, even if you’re proud to be at ease with saying ‘I don’t know, let’s find out.’ Students must believe that we’re the experts, at least in most of the material we’re teaching. So writing your own example answers can feel as risky as putting your superannuation behind a horse called Slowcoach.

An editor once asked me to provide answers for the tasks I’d set, and I sniffily pushed back at this request. Weren’t teachers able to figure out the answers themselves? And if they weren’t, wasn’t it better that I made them? My editor put her foot down; I complied… and I realised that some of the questions were too hard. Others were too vague. Still others were too involved. It was an eye-opening exercise.

Around Year 11 some students can feel real doubt about the possibility of writing a meaningful response to a complex text in only 40 minutes. Many HSC students have flatly denied that it’s possible to write a sophisticated creative response to a stimulus given under exam conditions. Providing them with examples (or allowing them to set a practise task) has gone a long way to improving my own creative writing, and showing students that they too can come up with something. Even my less-than-terrific pieces have shown the class that competent writers can have off-days!

When we teach essay-writing, we often write a sample introduction-and-a-paragraph on the board to show how the structure works. But not many teachers produce a whole essay of their own, written under the same assessment conditions that students will face. I’ve never met a teacher who produced a creative piece to show students—though many students have said they wished they could see an example of the teacher’s writing.

You don’t need to advertise that you’re doing this—if it’s been a few years since you’ve written a timed response, the first couple of tries are usually ugly. But when your writing and thinking speed reach pre-graduation levels, and you’ve produced a solid response, you’ll feel good about it.

Some good reasons for writing along with the class include:

  1. It’s confidence-inspiring for them to see you go through the exam behaviour of stopping, thinking, crossing stuff out, wiggling your pen, and so on. It’s hard, but it’s do-able, and you’re leading them from the front.
  2. It provides an immediately useable example of how they could have tackled the question.
  3. It shows you the flaws of a question that you or a colleague has set.
  4. It tests your own knowledge of a text or topic, and the skills that you’re teaching.
  5. It provides you with a bank of sample answers and responses that you can put in the library, or keep for use with the next year’s class. (A good emergency/cover lesson: give students a copy of your essay and ask them to spend a period marking it, and commenting on why it would have got a top-band mark).
  6. It will awe your colleagues and HoD.
  7. It is a great addition to an accreditation portfolio, especially if you annotate it with ideas from this blogpost (hey—take ‘em, my pleasure) about your belief in the pedagogical value of teacher participation.
  8. It keeps your hand in!
  9. It models the expected attitudes and behaviour.
  10. (The last one’s strictly for the hardcore) It’s fun.

There are two parts to leading from the front: doing it for the end-product, and being seen to do it by the troops. You may not be able to write along with the class during the assessment if you’re supervising it. But doing the exercise at some point, under the same conditions, really boosts your confidence, authority, and understanding of the work. It shows students that it’s possible, and makes them more willing to try.