What they probably won’t tell you at Teacher Training – opinions of a successful teacher.

There are some wonderful and fantastic bloggers who have much to add to educational debate that are far more intellectual and research orientated than me. Many talk a good talk, some sadly dismiss alternative views to their own as completely worthless. However they are not the ones I would choose to teach my own children. Many of the best teachers I have worked with have been racked with self doubt and constantly question themselves. I believe that teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach children, those wonderful frustrating beings that can seem scarcely human at times and at others astound with their insight and creativity. Teaching when it is going well is the best job in the world. When it is going badly it can be one of the worse and a wet and windy Friday last lesson with the challenging year 9 class can be an ordeal few outside teaching can imagine. You can have the oratory skills of Barak Obama and the prescience of Mike Tyson, but you will still suffer.

My students in a very challenging school won JP Morgan Bank’s ICT in the Community competition two years running. Rather than seeing this as the students achievement (I just let them loose) they mistakenly paid the school to release me as a consultant. I left school one afternoon having had a nightmare lesson that seemed to have lasted days, it ended with me physically holding two year 8 boys apart, who were determined to kick lumps out of each other. Several others were screaming at each other. I entered the banks marble halls with soft music playing. I pointed out to the lovely young lady who greeted me that our working conditions couldn’t be more different. “Oh no” she said “you should see it sometimes, it’s mad!”

I’m writing this from the point of view of a teacher who has been very successful on whatever criteria you want to judge me by. (Sorry to blow my own trumpet but I need some credibility to show I can teach) On my Advanced Skills Teacher Assessment I showed the highest performance at GCSE and A Level they had ever seen. Also some of the highest uptake at degree level . I had the best uptake at A level for my last GCSE class in a challenging school according to IOP data. 9 of my last 12 lessons were graded Outstanding by OFSTED and HMI and I have been described as ‘Inspirational’ in their reports. The ‘unsatisfactory’ lesson gave me many sleepless nights, but taught me more than any of the others. I never discovered my grade for an observed lesson for the Special School Inspection who brought their students to me for science, which ended with me imprisoning a lad with Down’s Syndrome in the toilet. I still maintain it was the best course of action.

This is what I think I have learned whilst not following conventional wisdom. I take risks, have failed often, but I know how far my students can go. I was usually the most disruptive influence in my own classroom, but It was a time of laughter and tears. It was with huge regret that I had to leave teaching due to a hearing loss (not helped by Motörhead concerts in my misspent youth).
I would like to be remembered for my humanity, not my intellect.

I am the son of two teachers (how many of us are!) My father gave me three pieces of advice before I started teaching:

Be either very good or very bad if you want to progress quickly. Looking at the SLT in many different schools this seems to be true.

Look after the support staff as they can have a huge impact on your working life and deserve to be treated with just as much respect as teaching staff, which is certainly true.

Learn from others, but be true to yourself and be the best you can be.

Interesting reading David Weston’s blog here about the progressive vs traditionalists. I’m a middle class ex grammar school boy who was firmly on the left. I read Physics at Manchester University in the early 80’s, a time defined by the Smiths, Joy Division and the incredible place that was the Hacienda. We also danced to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Stand down Margaret’ (the days when your music choices could reflect your beliefs).
In my final year I was all set to become an oil well logger and make heaps of money but then I read Colin Wilson ‘The Outsider’. I quickly decided I had no idea who or what I was, so headed off travelling instead, which I did for about 10 years.
I’ve been a potato picker, shepherd, financial consultant, tennis coach (Hong Kong), condom packer and Rubber Workers Union member (Sydney), prawn fisherman(Queensland), freelance photographer and taught in Zimbabwe and  a Buddhist Wat (Thailand).

During my travelling days I was arrested 4 times abroad (always innocent!), faced death many times at the hands of hippos, lions, Komodo dragons and armed angry border guards in Kashmir. Being an inept extreme sports enthusiast and adrenaline junkie caused countless self inflicted injuries at times. I feel I know who I am as I have learned from the adversity I have experienced. I have been in the best restaurants and hotels in the world and slept rough in parks and queued up with homeless people at soup kitchens.

I see the point of Education being to allow students to make choices in their life rather than others making choices for them. To equip them with the skills, knowledge and qualifications that reflect their ability and to know what they are good at. To know their own minds, be curious and questioning.

I went into teaching from a social services background: I was going to make a difference. I was pretty clueless! My first teaching practice was at Altrincham Grammar School; I nearly failed my first observation due to my appalling organisation. I used to cycle into school and get changed but that particular morning I realised I hadn’t brought a shirt. A quick run to lost property, I got the only one they had, it was tiny and only just about did up. I made my tie as fat as possible and put my jacket on. To my horror I found my tutor sitting at the back of the class. I was nervous and it was hot in the room so I started sweating profusely, but I couldn’t take my jacket off because I had a ridiculous shirt on. Worse as I turned around to write on the board I realised the shirt was too tight to lift my arm up. Fortunately it was a roller board, but still it was a bizarre performance. It was hard to fail in the Grammar School, the students were bright and compliant. I had no idea how far they could go though because I taught as I had been taught, neither interesting them nor stretching them; the students learning despite rather than because of me.

The next school was a very challenging school in the mid 80s set in the shadow of Strangeways Prison, to which many of our students graduated in a similar way to the Monopoly board. “Go straight to jail, do not enter society or earn any money”. This was where I realised I really was not a teacher yet. The nightmare class were 3 Yellow. A group of girls would wolf whistle me, I never worked out how to react. The room had massive old windows with curtains. Some of the boys used to hide behind them, one day they opened the window jumped out and ran away. The disturbed boy from Liberia would crawl around barking like a dog. I taught them nothing. The lessons took hours of thinking to prepare for no reward. No one watched me teach or supported me. I asked my tutor to teach a demo lesson with them and never saw him again. I exacted a horrible revenge on them in my last lesson, which was sexual reproduction. I had a huge cut away model penis that I showed, informing them ‘this is is about average size for an adult male …’ I still feel guilty.

My ideals had changed; the vision of myself leading these young minds to a love of science had gone. I had become harsh. It was their fault, senior leaders fault, I became fabulous at blaming. I then realised I had become the teacher I despised, moaning about my students and wanting someone else to fix them.
I became defensive, not wanting people to observe me or come into my room. I stopped taking risks, stopped doing practicals. Hated the fact that they wouldn’t let me teach them in interesting ways; we were in a Catch 22 -I couldn’t make it interesting as they wouldn’t behave or listen. They found my lessons boring so played up. I could just about control them but there wasn’t much learning happening.

The turning point came when I realised that I was the one who had to change. Dakota wisdom states ‘ when your horse is dead, dismount’ I realised that I had just been trying to whip the dead horse harder. I read lots of books and learned a bit. I watched other teachers, analysed what they did and learned a lot. The more I taught the more I learned but failure was always the best tutor and I continued to fail regularly as I took risks. There is a safe middle ground, but average was never going to be for me. I’m utterly convinced there is not a single best way of teaching. There may be a single best way of teaching a particular student at a particular moment in time, but that changes if they are hungry, tired, hormonal, aroused … the variables are huge for each individual student. Multiply these by the number in your class and a single strategy for teaching becomes a disastrous compromise. To me the best teachers tune into their classes and can take them on journeys using the most appropriate style at that time. To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

The influence of arousal can be horrific. I once taught a class immediately following a fight between an unpopular boy who was very much a victim and a popular one. The unpopular one was in my class and the mood of his classmates was one I will never forget. They were like a hunting pack sensing a weakness in a quarry. Even the ‘nice’ students were involved. A friend who went through the Bosnia conflict as a Marine described situations in much the same way, although far more extreme. The veneer of civilisation is very thin.

See Dan Ariely

My observations (not backed by any reliable data)

We all think we have a growth mindset, but we probably haven’t. It is something I try to follow.


For behaviour management the single biggest thing I learned was that it is not personal, so don’t take it as such.

If you are a new teacher it is going to be very hard to win over the older students. You are on their territory, they know the score. I had a difficult relationship with many of my year 11 form group at my last school. After I left teaching I opened my Facebook to ex students. Most of them added me as a friend and then apologised profusely.

My Observations – make up your own mind to their validity.

There are some brilliant and compelling traditional and progressive teachers and there are some appalling ones, on both sides. The brilliant ones on both sides are equally wonderful. A poor progressive teacher sometimes allows students the freedom to learn despite them, a poor traditional teacher can stifle all.

Teachers will never be replaced by computers or online learning. Teachers who can use digital devices to enhance learning will replace those who cannot.

Digital devices are simply tools that have no intrinsic value in themselves. It is all about how they are deployed.

Try to stop emotional reactions to conflict situations, they are rarely the most appropriate responses. Go in deal with it and get out quickly leaving the dignity of both intact.

If you fall out with a boy it is usually gone the next day and you haven’t fallen out with his friends.
If you fall out with a girl she can hate you forever and her friends will hate you too.

Listen to everyone, watch as many teachers as you can, learn from them but don’t try to be them, be yourself.

The more certain someone is about something in education, the less I tend to trust them.

Smile, always smile! Education is too important to be taken seriously.

Being disappointed is the most powerful weapon of all. Anger tends to be reflected back, disappointment, if you value the relationship, can be crushing. If you have no relationship this will have no effect. (I still remember the deep sadness on Mr Woodward’s face when I told him I hadn’t done his biology homework!)

Always analyse your lessons to consider: if you had an outstanding student in the classroom, would they be able to show they are outstanding? If the answer is no then you are limiting what your students can achieve.

Link to OFSTED Outstanding stu

Teaching, like being a parent, seems very simple before you try it.

Complex behaviour problems rarely have simple solutions.

Some in education seem worryingly keen to punish kids.

There is a massive difference between compliance and engagement.

Having my own children changed my perception of teaching. I’m not sure that it made me better but it certainly changed me.

I really like Stephen Covey’s “Seek to understand, then to be understood”. Listen to them before you try to teach them or deal with their behaviour.

I treated all my interactions with students as if it were an emotional bank account. Make deposits whenever you can, you will never know the difference it may make.

Having a student walk out of our school and throw himself off the cliffs to his death changed forever my perception of what matters in education. Rest in peace Stephen.

Learn to identify the students who wield the power in your classroom and how to deal with them. Otherwise every lesson can be a battle.
I believe behaviour management is far more complex than simply rewarding the behaviour you want to see and punishing the behaviour you don’t. I want my students to be self regulating not simply compliant in my presence because of fear of repercussions. Model the behaviour you want to see.

Students misbehave because their needs are not being met. It is impossible to meet all their needs in the production line educational system that we have. We should never write a young life off, nor simply punish those who have been punished more than enough in life.

There are very many well qualified people who are not well educated. They are simply exam smart.

There are many clever people who are not wise. Those who are clever and wise are usually humble.
Think before you respond. Once the head boy of the school was very disruptive in my lesson. I held him back and was furious, something stopped me from having a real go and instead I just said “what was that about Tom?” He immediately burst into tears, said he was under enormous pressure and that he couldn’t exceed expectations in anything, just possibly fail and he hated the feeling. Our highest achievers sometimes have unbearable pressure.

Don’t make assumptions. After the Columbine shootings it was (wrongly) reported that the perpetrators were Marilyn Manson fans and that he was therefore partly responsible. When asked what he would say to them his response was “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did”.
The priority in lessons is learning, but I don’t feel fun and learning are mutually exclusive and have yet to see any evidence that they are. Physics is awesome because it allows us to do these sort of things


Students need teaching, it is extremely unlikely that they will understand complex ideas simply from doing stuff. Practical activities need to be carefully considered as to what value they have. This is a great document to see the issues

York stuff

Teaching students science without proper practicals is like teaching them to swim without water.

One of the biggest problems to overcome in teaching maths, is the students saying “I can’t do maths” which unfortunately can be a societal norm. I think it’s acceptable to slap their parents who say ‘I couldn’t do maths either” giving their offspring an external locus of control and not taking responsibility for their own learning.

Performance obsessed cultures can inhibit learning see Alfie Kohn

Twitter is amazing, as you enter an incredible global staff room with unbelievably talented people. Like all staff rooms beware the moaning corner!

Twitter can also be a hall of mirrors where we can simply confirm our bias and cliques can reflect each other’s views with great authority. It doesn’t mean they are right!

Some people use twitter and blogging to make the world a better place, others to make their own world better.

Beware those who love the data more than the kids.

People who are not teachers will never know that feeling of walking out of a room buzzing as you know you have inspired them. I had this feeling more often in challenging schools than high performing ones, but the same goes for despair.
My year group I had for four years gave me a standing ovation in our final assembly. That feeling will never leave me.

Kids have one shot at education they deserve the best. Strive to be better: not because you are not good enough, but because you can always be better.

Never, ever give up.

Please feel free to comment or add ideas

11 thoughts on “What they probably won’t tell you at Teacher Training – opinions of a successful teacher.

  1. I have really enjoyed reading this, it is always humbling when bloggers write from the heart rather than spouting the latest rhetoric or jumping on the latest moaning bandwagon. I too work in a challenging school in challenging circumstances ( special measures). I will be using quotes from this blog to motivate, inspire and reassure colleagues and to remind them of our core purpose – giving young people the best deal from their one shot at education; and I mean education in the wider sense, not just between 9.00 and 3.00.

  2. We have so many wonderful times and lessons, but it’s the times that we have been helpless and the students have seemed out of control that stay indelibly etched in our hearts and minds. I am still reflecting on how I could have handled these differently and they were years ago.

  3. Well said Neil. It saddens me that it appears that the people who have control over education -and therefore our young people’s futures-have little understanding of what the word actually means. I entered this profession as I too wanted to inspire and enable young people to become the best they can be. I am now nearing the end of a long and, I believe, successful career and am saddened by what is happening within our schools – and how love of learning for its own sake is being destroyed by such things as targets and league tables. About time those in power listened to those with experience.

  4. A couple of years ago Neil taught the “Science of surfing” to some of my students as we stood on a beach as part of a cross curricular day I ran. His teaching that day was inspirational to my students and to me. Since then I have become friends with Neil and his family. Even during casual conversations Neil has put across ideas of ways to teach certain concepts, which I have then tried and they have been fantastic. What a superb article, teacher and friend. Thanks Neil!

  5. Neil was my teacher a good few years ago and loved the way he taught us. He made the lessons fun and there for we took in what we were supposed to and even now i remember some of the lessons and what we were learning. Keep doing what your doing Neil

  6. Thanks Neil, beautifully expressed and so thought-provoking. For those of us here in the Southern Hemisphere it’s an inspirational read for starting anew school year.

  7. This is a great post. Teaching, in my opinion, is about the emotive as much as it is about the objective when it comes to children (or adults). It is important to understand what captures the attention, passion and focus of children rather than simply teaching a checklist curriculum. Getting children to engage and understand is far more important and teachers can only do this by reaching out to children on their level, not on the same level as a group of people who put together a curriculum in an isolated room. This should only be a starting foundation to set expectations… Communication of this information (as with everything in life) is absolutely fundamental to developing a successful environment for education.

    You are one of the best at it from my experience, and more importantly you continue to drive this forward and aim to grow and learn.

  8. Very wise words and a truly interesting read from a brilliant teacher (from my own experience). I have always found retaining information extremely difficult, I definitely fit into the ‘exam smart’ category. Having said that, if something is fun, holds your attention, is something that you actually get involved in, dare I say enjoy and maybe in some way can relate to, then it suddenly becomes memorable. I have found this throughout life, not just at school. Neil Atkin had something rare in our high school – respect. Students who weren’t in his science class wanted to be and I believe that other classes did not have the opportunities to excel in their exams, they were neither interested or cared, I disagree with anyone who would say that was solely the students fault. Education lacks approachable, realistic teachers who treat students as individuals not as statistics.
    This is an inspirational blog, from a passionate and influential man.

    On a lighter note, most teachers don’t have such great hair either 😉

  9. Lovely. And lots of it relevant to so much more than teaching in a lot of ways – I’ve already taken on loads of this for my private tutoring and even my research! Good work Neil!! x

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