As interview season comes round again, I was thinking about how many 'sample lessons' I have seen over the last few years in my capacity as a middle-manager. And how many perfectly decent applicants have shipwrecked themselves in 20 short minutes by completely missing the mark in this brutal but necessary ordeal.
These sample lessons are a relatively recent phenomenom in teaching recruitment (I went looking for my first job in the early 90's and was never once asked to do one.) However, I can't believe how ill-equipped most newly qualified teachers are to deliver them. True, I have seen some very good examples and am in fact working with brilliant colleagues who taught those very lessons. But surely a half-decent teacher training institution should cover this?
As I have now been blogging for over four months, I have delusions of significance... so here is my handy guide to preparing a sample lesson, especially for all you newbies out there going through the interview mill for the first time.
As recruiting teachers, we sometimes feel a wave of whinging and wimpering coming off a candidate at the whole prospect of the lesson... 'But I don't know the students... [yes, we know that] and I don't know their prior learning [yep, we know that too]... and I only have 20 minutes' [uh, we know that too, we made this up after all] We know that what you are doing is highly unrealistic. We are not looking for a text-book OFTSED lesson plan with all the boxes ticked. Don't treat it as such. Want to know how to ace a sample lesson? Think about what we are looking for.
Broadly speaking, when I watch a sample lesson I am looking for the following things, in this order of priority:
1) Presence, charisma and empathy with the students. OK, you've never taught these kids in this room before, but you should look comfortable standing up and taking centre stage with a group of young people. You should be able to capture attention and keep it, and you should show warmth towards, and interest in the kids you're faced with.
(I don't actually need twenty minutes to see this - it's almost immediately recognisable.)
2) Planning. I expect you to have worked up a pretty impressive 20 minutes worth of stuff. I expect you to have good enough Internet skills to have tracked down the specification, past papers and so on. I expect you to have swotted up on what you're teaching. Come on, most interview panels will let you pick a topic or subject from a wide range of choices; if they haven't told you up front what exam board they use, get on the phone and ask. And then produce, at the very least, a good Powerpoint presention, handout/worksheet or activity. Ideally, all three. Make absolutely sure you have a good extension activity even if you are pretty sure you won't have time to use it.
Come on. It's not rocket science. This is a twenty minute, pull out all the stops, show-'em-what- you've-got opportunity. If you can't be bothered to make an effort for this, what does it say about your contribution to the life of the school/college?
3) Teaching craftsmanship. This is the tricky bit. You have a short amount of time to showcase your skills and also to model your priorities. For goodness sake, don't do the first 20 minutes of a 2 hour lesson. Or the first 20 minutes you would routinely do with any new class. Don't throw away time on your classroom 'rules' or an ice-breaker. [Ask for and use their names as you go along, or get them to write their names on pieces of card.] I would say, as a general rule, we are looking for some up-front teaching to prove you can be interesting, hold a class's attention and explain your subject. But also we need to see one or two good student activities to prove there's more to you than just chalk and talk. Activities also show us the quality of your interactions with students. (For goodness sakes go and talk to the students while they do the task you have set. Don't wander around tossing your chalk in the air and definitely don't go and chat with the observers!)
- state a clear aim at the beginning and recap/test understanding at the end
- make sure you interact with as many students as you can [if it's a small group, every single student]
- make sure you flag up at some point how the topic fits in with the specification or with other topics they might have studied or go on to study
- if it's a lesson for year 10 or above, a quick reference to an exam question or typical vocational assignment question never does any harm.
If that sounds like way too much to cope with in the time you have, you are probably being much too ambitious in the material you hope to cover. Do less better.
Finally 4) Content
We do notice if you don't know what your talking about - if you are unlucky enough to get given a lesson topic with no choice, for goodness sake mug up on it. And we do notice if you are pitching the lesson at the wrong age group. If you are a secondary trained teacher applying for an advanced level job, you are in a difficult position but it's not impossible to get it right. If you have time, grab an A-level text book or just spend an hour or so on some A-level revision sites.
One issue that can floor candidates - and it really shouldn't - is finding out that the group have already studied the topic, or (even worse) just taken part in another sample lesson on the same subject! Prepare a lesson which will serve either as a revision of a familiar topic or as an introduction for the first time. It's not hard. Make sure that any questions you are planning to ask have follow on questions that probe more deeply if the students can glibly rattle off the answers. Make sure all your activities are that little bit special, so that even if they have bashed through the subject before, you are giving them an interesting new take on the topic. A case study instead of a simple discussion. A matching exercise with challenging distractors instead of a simple fill-in-the-blanks.
Five worst sins I've seen in sample lessons:
Me 'Can you talk me through this handout, because I don't see how it fits in with what you taught?'
Applicant 'Oh, that's just something I found in the Internet last night.'
Applicant 'Please write your names on the cards and put them in front of you.'
After spending 3 minutes doing this, he taught for 20 minutes and never once referred to any of the students by name.
One applicant took up half her allotted time going through her 'classroom rules.' These included 'don't surf the Internet when you should be working'. The lesson was in a classroom without computers.
Another applicant had an error in the maths on her handout which had to be pointed out to her by one of the students.
And finally, the most astounding sample lesson I have ever seen went like this.
'My lesson today is on alpha testing and beta testing.'
'Does anyone know what alpha testing is?'
They did; they told him.
He wrote it on the board
'Does anyone know what beta testing is?'
They did; they told him
He wrote it on the board
That was the end of the lesson.
He did not get the job.